Film review: Me Before You

Film review: Me Before You

Trailed as one of the films of the summer, this screen adaptation by Jojo Moyes of her own 2012 novel has caused a storm among disabled movie-goers. Mik Scarlet has been to see it for Disability Now.

I know I have a charmed life. I beat three terminal prognoses, have had a 25-year career in the media and have been happily married for ten years to the woman I loved at first sight. I can safely say that like many other disabled people I live boldly, which just happens to be the hashtag to promote the new romantic tearjerker Me Before You.

Unlike other chick flicks of its ilk, this film has caused global outrage among the disabled community. Many have expressed worries about a film that features a disabled romantic lead, played by a non-disabled actor, who decides to visit the Dignitas clinic for an assisted death at the end of the movie. So was it as bad as so many disabled people thought it might be?

The film starts in a conventional chick flick manner, clumsily setting up a series of stereotypical one-dimensional characters, and to be honest I found myself feeling a little sorry for all concerned in its production. We meet the kookie Louisa Clark (Emelia Clarke) and her working-class family, who the loyal Louisa supports financially as the rest of her family seem to be out of work, and no one has heard of the benefits system. Let go from her job as a waitress she finds herself employed as the companion to the quadriplegic ex-banker Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who just happens to live in his parents’ fully adapted castle. Yes, I said castle. Already you can see the situation is not exactly a portrayal of normal life. Luckily Louisa’s kookiness impresses Will’s over-protective mother and she lands the job. I won’t mention the fact that the disabled lead has the very best of everything, which as the story unfolds even includes the use of an accessible private jet. Whenever you watch romantic films you need to suspend your disbelief to some degree.

However, what is really troubling is that as the film continues even I found myself investing in the characters, and as the romance between Will and Louisa blossoms I longed for the possibility of a truly beautiful film that broke the mould and showed a positive portrayal of love and disability. Sadly I knew the truth of what was coming. Despite knowing it, I was not ready for the switch when the film turned from cheesy romance to propaganda for assisted suicide. It wasn’t even that subtle, but I could tell from the sobs of the packed cinema that my wife and I were the only ones who felt the mood darken as the third act began.

During a dream getaway the two lovers seem to be on the brink of a wonderful future together. Of course it would be filled with challenges, but then which romance isn’t, but instead this is the point when the love is ensured never to develop as Will insists that no love, no joy, nothing will ever be as good as his life before his impairment and so he must die. But we don’t see a man in the throes of grief over his accident, despite it only being two years since he was hit by a motorbike while rushing to work. Instead we see a sane man making a rational choice, a choice that is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to die in his position? You know, a rich disabled man who is loved by a wonderful woman and supported by his family. The film ends after Will’s death, which is symbolised by a CGI leaf falling from a tree and turning to dust as it hits the floor, with Louisa reading his parting letter to her. Go “live boldly” he tells her, “don’t settle”. You know, don’t settle for a disabled millionaire. The horror. The credits roll as Louisa ventures off on the new adventure of her life, funded by a trust fund courtesy of Will. The cinema emptied with not one person looking at me sat in the front row, stunned at what I had just witnessed.

I make no apology for the fact I campaign against assisted suicide, mainly as I have experienced almost exactly what has been captured in Me Before You. Yes my impairment was less dramatic but it happened at the age of 15 and I was sure my life was over. Suicide was the only solution I could see, but luckily I couldn’t think of a way of going through with it that did not mean my family would discover my body. So here I am 35 years later with the kind of life that would be perfect for just this sort of romantic novel or film, which I would never have had if I had have managed to find a way to die. I know so many other disabled people who really do live boldly too, but do we see our lives? No. All we get is the reinforcement that death is preferable to disability.

If you are suicidal and not disabled you’re ill, but if you’re suicidal and disabled you’re making an informed choice. As I wheeled home in the sunshine, my wife at my side, what broke my heart is that if I was that 15-year-old boy today Me Before You would tell me suicide was the only way forward all over again.

For those involved in the film to decry disabled people’s objections highlights a deeper issue for our community. Not only do we see our experiences in fiction but if we dare to raise our voices when we feel unhappy about the portrayal of disability we are told we don’t have a “full view” of the issues, and by non-disabled people too. I wish I could have told each and every tear-soaked cinema goer that sat through this film with me why it was so damaging, but I was struck silent by the fear that they would all go home assured that this was a realistic portrayal of disability. Instead I will tell you see Me Before You at your peril. You may find yourself crying but not for the reason the film makers had hoped.

10 thoughts on “Film review: Me Before You

  1. After my car accident I felt low, really low. I got trapped in a cycle of pain and despair, I planned my suicide down to the last minute detail, making sure it was going to be my dad not my mum who found me, forgetting one small thing! I could no longer open the loft hatch and climb the ladder to do the deed. Fast forward life and I am happily married with an amazing son and daughter. Everyday my family and I #liveboldly

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  2. Exactly what Mik says.
    It is virtually 5 years to the day when the insidious progress of my disability started, gradually leaving me less and less mobile. I now need other people to help me bath and prepare food and need a wheelchair to get around. Five years ago I could cartwheel, handspring and spent 10 hours a week at the gym.
    I went through an initial period of determination that I would carry on whatever but my employers had different ideas. I knew things weren’t going to be easy when the assistant headteacher told me that if I was one of her horses she’d have me shot, but I was determined to fight to stay working. I fought the bastards for three and a half years until my mental health crumbled. I now suffer from PTSD due to the harassment I suffered during that time. I became suicidal and my mental illness convinced me that I would become a burden on my family. I am apparently a big suicide risk because I don’t talk to others about how I feel (teaching over years gives you the ability to put a mask of okayness on) and I am impulsive. After a great deal of therapy for this, I still find it impossible to admit to others how much I planned to commit suicide and ensure I provided my family with my death in service grant from my pension.
    What turned things around was that I suddenly blurted out the burden thing to my husband and said about being worth more dead than alive. He then spent a great deal of time convincing me that it didn’t matter how bad my impairment got that he would never see me as a burden. We hadn’t been communicating in any real way for a while as I’d become more and more withdrawn (the way I was being treated at work just fed a lifelong feeling of inferiority and body dysmorphia and I felt like my husband didn’t find me attractive any more. When we started actually talking I found out that he just didn’t want to put pressure on me and that he felt I’d talk when I was ready and that he thought I was too exhausted and in pain for sex. We had a week on our own when we were put up in a London hotel by the NHS whilst I went for tests and the time away from the children and everyday distractions gave us plenty of time to kick start our communication and the sexual side of our relationship.
    All I can say now is that, whilst the PTSD is still there and affects my life on a daily basis, I love life and (at the age of 47) have finally learned to be comfortable with myself. My relationship with my husband is the best it has ever been (and our sex life is completely mind blowing). I am also involved in campaigning over disability rights and am living life to the full.
    Communication is the basis of everything and suicidal thoughts are a sign of irrational thinking due to depression and misunderstanding the possibilities of life (that misunderstanding comes from outside and then becomes internalised in my experience). We need to fight for the world to adapt and see our worth and to embrace the skills that we have in abundance. It is not just disabilities that can be hidden, very often the public do not want to acknowledge our abilities and shite like this film just perpetuate that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cath so much resonates with me down to the point of hiding everything from my wife and breaking down one day. She has convinced me many times how much I contribute although I feel like a drain on resources and family time and so on! She has saved me many times without even knowing it!

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  3. I personally don’t see a problem with the movie at all and I would be an advocate of freedom of choice . I think Mil the article may have been written rather than the bigger picture , that not everyone feels the same .

    Not everyone disabled will chose to purposefully die ,of course not , and that’s fantastic that’s there is so many who chose to embrace life , live life to the full .
    however i think it’s nice to have a movie that does relate to that other choice , as there is so much stigma to the choice to euthanise oneself or even talk about it , so the people who it does resonate with don’t feel so alone and know they shouldn’t feel ashamed to think that way.

    I have never been confided to a wheelchair so can’t relate to that ,
    however I can relate to having to “argue” my point where sometimes the grind of an ongoing disability ,mentally and physically (remember there can be a lot of pain associated with being confined to a chair , or hospital bed , or a long term illness or arthritis and so forth) can sometimes be torturous and that decision to take control of your future can be both logical and well founded .

    “Hollywood “all of that up the message is a worthwhile one I feel although perhaps more responsibility on “waiting it out ” so a decision will be more balanced in the long term

    With regards and deepest respect

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