REVIEW: “Me Before You” and the Romanticization of Death and Disability

The basic premise of Me Before You isn’t particularly unique among the recent slew of illness/disability/death-oriented romances (ie. The Vow, The Fault In Our Stars, Silver Linings Playbook, Love & Other Drugs, Rust & Bone, If I Stay): kindhearted-to-a-fault Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke) takes on the job of carer for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a wealthy former finance bro who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, and in trying to show him life is worth living, the two fall in love. Add in a dash of class struggle and the medical drama of assisted suicide, and the film hopes to leave not a single eye dry.

Alongside Daenerys Targaryen and Finnick Odair, the cast also features Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) as Patrick, Lou’s running-obsessed and inattentive boyfriend, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) as Traynor’s gruff father, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) as Lou’s warm-hearted father, and the Doctor’s companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) as Lou’s sister—a surprising assortment of familiar faces in such a saccharine film.

Yeah, I was skeptical too, going in.

Let me first address what the film gets right—it’s not all bad. Clarke manages to take the prototypical awkward romantic heroine, complete with klutziness and a penchant for uncomfortable chatter, and give her a fresh twist; of note is her remarkable range of “please help me I have no idea what I’m doing” facial expressions. Uncomfortable moments of female life, such as trying to complete a job interview in a badly ripped skirt or running with a “hand bra” in place of proper support, are all-too-relatable. Discussing Clarke’s role would be remiss, too, without touching on her outfits. Dressed in a variety of layered, patterned, furred, beribboned, and otherwise eclectic outfits, she looks like she’s walked straight out of a ModCloth catalog, complete with colorful socks and decorated high heels. Even her laptop, spotted in a handful of scenes, is bright pink and covered in flower stickers. Touches like these help make her character feel more genuine, as her endearing over-the-top qualities are woven throughout her entire personality.

Claflin, too, manages to give Traynor’s character depth beyond his pretty face, though it’s certainly still quite pretty. Maybe it’s the combination of acerbic commentary and a slight smirk, or the way he differentiates a forced smile (directed at his mother’s fussing) from a genuine one (in response to Lou knocking over yet another stuffy objet d’art). But, more importantly, he has chemistry with Clarke. The two make the all-too-expected shared glances, quiet smiles, and careful touches seem new again. Also, for once the process of falling in love wasn’t a clichéd singular moment of realization, but a much more realistic slow process hidden behind her efforts to help him fall in love with life, and her desperation to make him laugh again is a good way of displaying her feelings.

There were definitely some fuzzy feelings.

However, while the actors carry the story along as best they can, all the animal magnetism in the world can’t salvage a shallow, mercurial script. Though the entire point of the film is Lou’s ability to open Traynor’s eyes to the joys of life, even in his quadriplegic state, he still opts to go through with his assisted suicide despite falling in love with her. So did his character evolve at all? Having him still decide life isn’t worth it seems to say no, while his relationship with Lou disagrees. It’s confusing as to whether the film wants us to have faith in the beauty of life no matter in what state, or to respect that sometimes life isn’t worth living.

Moreover, the whole of Traynor’s paralysis as a plot device seems tasteless, or at least tone-deaf. He and his family are incredibly wealthy, and he has more adaptability devices than most disabled people could ever hope to afford, as well as top-notch medical care. But it’s not enough for Traynor, whose life pre-accident was full of world travels and adrenaline sports. Part of me wonders if, had he been a little less spoiled for luxury, he would have been a little more grateful to be alive. And, moreover, the film takes great pains to cast his former days in an unflattering light, painting two of his former friends as callous and unsupportive against Lou’s deeply connected and close family. But he still seems to value the loss of his previous life and superficiality as greater than his renewed sense of human connection and happiness. Even his final gift to Lou, a financial windfall that would allow her to move out of her small town and travel the world for new experiences, perpetuates the idea that his lavish life should be an aspiration for a small-town girl. Whatever statement the film is trying to make about life’s worth is muddled.

No stark lines and expensive modern furniture to be seen in this family.

Me Before You is not a subtle film. Lou is nearly a caricature of a manic pixie protagonist, and Traynor is a modern-day soulful, brooding Mr. Darcy. It clearly aspires to wrest the slumber party chick flick crown from The Notebook, using similar tropes of a romance born from tragedy and despair, pulled apart by forces bigger than the two lovers whose feelings extend beyond death itself. And in some ways, it’s better than The Notebook—I certainly felt more attached to Lou and Traynor than I did to Noah and Allie. So while Me Before You paints by all the expected numbers, and seems to be struggling with whatever truism it wanted to impart, somehow it all works. I cried.


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