On my way out of seeing Me Before You, I compared it to a warm cup of tea. I thought it was charmingly inoffensive, and yet upon further reflection, it does hide a few somewhat offensive sentiments. In trying to be a chaste, romantic fantasy, the film is at a loss when it comes to the hard realities of physical disability. It shuns the nastiness of that pain to the background so that the audience can relish the love story in the foreground. And that love story is almost winning enough to mask the deep flaws hidden beneath the surface.
Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke) has just lost her job at the bakery, but she’s in luck when she finds a job as a caretaker for the wealthy quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). She doesn’t need any sort of training because Will’s mother just wants her son to have some companionship that will hopefully pull him out of the deep depression he’s been suffering since the accident that put him in a wheelchair. While Will is initially chilly towards the lovably klutzy Lou, they eventually warm up to each other. However, when Lou discovers that Will is planning to take his life through physician assisted suicide, she rallies to try and make him so happy that he’ll change his mind.
Tickets to Me Before You should come with a tub of Haagen-Dazs and a warm bath. It’s a movie meant to comfort and give you a fuzzy feeling inside, and it largely succeeds in that attempt thanks to the endearing performance from Clarke who shows that she can play bubbly and effervescent just as easily as she can play the stone-cold killer Khaleesi from Game of Thrones. Clarke and Claflin have tremendous chemistry, and we want to see their characters be happy together.
Director Thea Sharrock plays right into the pleasure centers of our brain with just the right amount of cheesiness. There’s a huge wealth fantasy at play since Will can basically give Lou anything. They even can dance together in their own way, and the protagonist’s main motivation is to heap as much happiness as she can on Will so that he’ll want to live. It’s sweet, lovely, and a little cloying, but in a way that goes down fairly smooth until you consider that the film is hiding from maturely addressing disability.
The film never gets us to sympathize with Will’s desire to commit suicide. Even if we can’t condone his desire, we should at least be able to understand it, and the film’s half-hearted attempts to justify Will’s actions don’t come anywhere close to moving us. Because Me Before You wants to live firmly in the realm of fantasy, it doesn’t want to address the ugliness of living with quadriplegia. We’re told that Will hates being stuck in a chair because he used to be so active, and his physical therapist reveals to Lou that Will wakes up screaming, but it’s always better to show instead of tell, and Me Before You always wants to be avoid showing anything remotely unpleasant unless it’s melodramatic.
If Me Before You had the emotional maturity to address physician-assisted suicide like The Sea Inside or a similar film, it would at least be worthy of that discussion even if you disagree with the character’s decision. But because Me Before You wants to keep everything cheerful, it ends up doing a grave disservice to the reality of disability and turns suicide into something positive. This is a movie where someone in the audience can shout, “Fuck off, Neville!” at Matthew Lewis, who plays Lou’s boyfriend, and get a laugh (as someone did at my screening), but that lightness works against the film when it tries to put on its serious face.
For most of its runtime, Sharrock is able to trick her audience into falling for this love story, and the performances from her two lead actors are suitably adorable and engaging. However, the seriousness of quadriplegia is too heavy for this soft-serve romance and it crumbles under the weight of an intruding reality.