Me Before You
This movie has been criticised by some disability groups as being "disability snuff". That's a strong criticism and one that should be taken seriously. I went to it, not expecting to like it. But, having read criticisms of it on the Internet press, I thought I should see it and form my own opinions.
I was surprised. I came away liking it. Being in a wheelchair, I take seriously films about disability and subject them to a high standard of critical scrutiny. So far as I know, the movie is not based on any particular real-life story, but is a work of fiction. Not half bad either.
Now before you read on, spoiler alert: I reveal the story's end in what follows. But then, most Internet reviews I read of this movie disclosed its ending well before I saw it. Oh well, that's what happens with freedom of the press, I guess. Knowing how the film ended, though, didn't affect my enjoyment of it.
Now, at a superficial level, the movie can be accused of being nothing more than an unrealistic fairytale, though admittedly one with a sad ending. The story is simple: young(ish), wealthy, professional guy is turned quadriplegic by a road accident. He wants to end his life by legal euthanasia. His loving, seemingly very wealthy parents (they appear to live in a castle, no less!) hire a pretty, ditzy, young lady as a companion/carer. After some initial coldness, they fall in love, she tries to change his mind about the euthanasia, but he won't. He goes off to Switzerland where euthanasia is legal, she goes with him on their last trip together, and she returns alone to face the rest of her life. End of movie. It can be compared with the French movie of several years back, "The Intouchables", with a similar theme but a much happier ending.
The first criticism is that the movie has a quadriplegic who is very wealthy. In real life, this seldom happens. Most quads are either poor, or indeed poverty-stricken. That is one of the main reasons their disability weighs so heavily on them. After all, money eases many problems. My second criticism is that the film perpetuates the old Hollywood myth of pretty nurse/carer falling in love with impossibly handsome young patient/wheelie, she sacrifices her future for him, and they stroll/wheel off happily into the sunset. This doesn't happen very often either. Admittedly, I know one wheelie who did marry his carer quite some years ago and, so far as I know, they are still happy together. But it is still rare – most carer/client relationships are professional ones, often with a tinge of real friendship, but ultimately resting on a commercial basis.
So, okay, I freely admit two of the movie's basic elements are deeply suspect. Beyond that though, I thought the film, though basically a romantic fantasy, was an interesting, insightful, and sensitive portrayal of the sometimes linked issues of disability and euthanasia.
For a start, nobody talks quadriplegic Will Traynor (well played by "The Hunger Games" star Sam Claflin) into his euthanasia decision. He is strong minded, well educated, and highly intelligent. No one pressures him: all his friends, relatives, and Louisa his love interest/carer (most engagingly played by "Game of Thrones" star Emilia Clarke), want him to change his mind. Only his father (played by the ubiquitous and capable Charles Dance) sort of supports Will's decision – but with great reluctance; he trusts and respects his son's judgement.
Furthermore, Will's position is not an easy one. He was disabled relatively late in life; before, he led an adventurous, sporting, professionally satisfying life, but since his accident spends most of his time in bed, in great pain, often in hospital, and subject to bouts of pneumonia that threaten to kill him. He has two lives to compare: his before-accident life, and his post-accident life. Also, he sees his ex-girlfriend marry his best friend. (Watch out for a brief cameo from Joanna Lumley as a deliciously bitchy wedding guest.) That is not unusual for post-accident quadriplegics. He decides he doesn't want his post-accident life anymore. No one decides for him. I, for one, don't blame him. I got my disability, from polio, at the age of six. I grew up with severe disability and got used to it. I remember very little of my infant, pre-polio life. I've had a very good life with lots of help. In my circumstances, I have no wish to kill myself. But if I was in Will's shoes, I might feel very differently. In any case, my ideological position is that I support euthanasia, provided the person is mature enough to understand what he/she is doing, and provided no one pressures him/her. In my view, one should be legally free, if of sound mind, to choose how one leaves this life.
I don't think the film's treatment of Will trivialises his disability, or suggests in some way that he is no longer a "worthwhile" person. It does treat him as someone driven to the edge, who can't take it any more, who doesn't want Louisa, a vibrant, full-of-life young woman, sacrificing her future on his altar, and who chooses a legal way out. The film portrays the relationship between Will and Louisa in a tender, non-exploitative, sympathetic way, but without pulling any punches. I thought the acting of the two principal players, Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, was very, very good: Clarke is bouncy, bright, and breezy, a complete change from her regal seriousness as Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, in "GoT"; while Claflin well captures the bitterness and despair of Will, robbed of his former golden life. Claflin's character is not to be pitied, but rather applauded for his strength in carrying out a tough decision that suits his wishes, but not those of his wider world.
One may quibble – legitimately – with the choice of a non-disabled actor to play a disabled role. However, in defence of this, it must be noted that the character of Will Traynor is portrayed on screen in both his pre- and post-accident personas, though the former takes up not much screen time. So, it could perhaps be argued a non-disabled actor was required. Rather akin to the choice of Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". The story of Will Traynor in this movie did make me ask: are there any professional, real-life disabled actors out there who could have played the part? I don't know the answer to that; perhaps some of you might make suggestions.
The film is based on a best-selling novel by JoJo Moyes, who also wrote the screenplay. It is very capably directed by Thea Sharrock, a British director. The film moves along at a smart clip, and the story is wrapped up in under two hours. Very good for the moviegoer stunned by the three-hour epics we so often get.
And yes, JoJo Moyes has published a sequel, "After You", detailing the further adventures of Louisa Clarke. I await the (inevitable?) movie version with trepidation.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * *