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.