Review: Me Before You

"Me Before You" is a competently-made film. Its leads are likable and have natural on-screen chemistry. You want things to work out for them. Its tearjerker moments largely avoid melodrama and thanks to well-placed Ed Sheeran songs, the soundtrack is sufficiently sappy. On it's surface, it's a somewhat above-average date movie. I even shed a tear. And yet, the more I think about "Me Before You" the more annoyed I become, because despite all that, there's something rotten at the center: tensions built on a foundation of a tone-deaf attitude towards disability.

Laid off and desperate to help support her parents, Louisa "Lou" Clark is between jobs, struggling to find work that matches with her bubbly personality. Things look bleak, but Lou scores an interview for a caregiving position at the sprawling, castle-like Traynor estate. The interview goes poorly, but despite (or because of?) nervous eccentricities and a torn skirt, Lou lands the job.

Her patient is Will Traynor, a thirty-something once successful in business and sport, now confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck-down after a motorcycle accident two years earlier. Will's condition is incurable and has deeply affected his personality. In stark contrast to Lou's smiling optimism, Will spends his days brooding, listening to angsty music and staring grimly out of a window. Lou's job is to simply keep him company, but wouldn't you know it, she starts to fall for him. She sets out to show Will that life is still waiting for him beyond the estate, unaware of the tragic path Will's outlook has set him on.

Let's start positively. Most of the performances in "Me Before You" are good, but the clear star here is Emilia Clarke. Her portrayal of Lou is infinitely likable. Throughout the film, Lou sacrifices her own happiness for that of others, including her parents, her sister, her boyfriend, and Will himself. Some of these sacrifices are treated as no-brainers, while others weigh heavily on Lou. Emilia effortlessly sells her struggle with selflessness. You genuinely want things to turn out well for her, and despite his gruff and off-putting introduction, you come to root for Will because she does, too.

Sam Claflin plays Will, and while his performance isn't as good as his co-star, he eventually breaks out of his first act monotone to emote a bit, delivering a performance that helps build on the real chemistry the two actors share. As Will's parents, Charles Dance and Janet McTeer say much without speaking. It's clear Will's accident has deeply affected them, and while united in love for their son their disagreements in how best to care for him have clearly played out many times before.

In addition to avoiding too much cringe, the script is funnier than I expected. I found myself chuckling along while Lou bantered with her sister (played by "Doctor Who" alum Jenna Coleman) about dress appropriateness, and laughing at Lou's frustration with the utter uselessness of her boyfriend (Matthew Lewis). And while Will is profoundly unlikeable in his first scenes, his dry, bitter wit is an amusing foil to Lou's positivity.

In fact, most of the film is fine, if not good. The wheels start to come off in scenes dealing with the film's primary conceit: a man struggling to find value in life after becoming disabled.

When Will talks about the impact of disability on his life, he talks almost exclusively in terms of physical limitations. In scene after scene, he laments things he can no longer do. Other characters discuss his condition with tacit agreement, a sense of "tut, tut, what a shame to live that way." Lou, blind to his disability, seeks to inject life back into Will, but even her successes are book ended with his bleak attitude: Happiness is temporary, disability is forever, and who would want this life? These scenes are meant to inspire sympathy, but are troubling when set against the film's seeming rejection of a "handi-capable" mentality.

People who develop handicaps must surely face a range of physical, emotional, and mental challenges as they overcome their disability and adjust to life after. But struggle to overcome is not represented here. Will has given up. Why? Well, his condition is irreversible. We are told he is in constant excruciating pain. We never see that, but we do hear Will repeatedly talk about how he can't do the things he once could. This is a negative, one-dimensional portrayal of disability in a medium that rarely portrays it at all.

Perhaps this is also a fault of the source material. The novel by Jojo Moyes has been similarly criticized by disability advocates. The filmmakers were surely aware of this, yet appear to have done nothing to mitigate the implications of Will's outlook. A film adaption that embraces its source's flaws cannot be excused from repeating them. Despite otherwise enjoying the film, this failure has stayed with me the longest. That's a real shame.

Score: 3 / 5

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