If I were trapped within a chair,
My body useless, simply there,
I think I’d grieve in my despair,
And call my lot in life unfair,
And lift up many a desperate prayer,
And doubt in ways I’d never share,
My life too broken to repair.
And what I’d do once rage had waned
Cannot be sure or preordained,
But I believe my life restrained
Could still hold joy since life remained,
Not merely to be entertained,
But be fulfilled. Though life be pained,
Does that mean it should be disdained?
MPAA rating: PG-13
Me Before You has all the potential you could want for a summer romance flick—a touching and emotional story, two appealing leads with chemistry, a difficult and tragic subtext. But there are two ways that a film like this can go, and sadly this one takes the worst possible route. Just a warning: spoilers are unavoidable in discussing the film’s great stumble so I won’t be dancing around it.
I suppose I should say up front that I really enjoyed most of Me Before You. The first two thirds of it make for a highly engaging romance, one that develops where neither lover would have expected. After losing her job, young Brit Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) ends up applying as a home caregiver for wealthy quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who is confined to wheelchair and bed at all times. His bitterness keeps her at a distance at first as someone his mother hired against his will, but Louisa’s natural charm and hesitant spunk slowly win him over, as well as some bonding over movies (including the excellent French film Of Gods and Men). I kind of fell in love with Emilia Clarke in this movie; she wears her awkward emotions on her sleeve with the mere expression of her eyebrows, and she’s such a winsome lead that it’s no surprise that Will falls for her too.
But then Me Before You delves into the controversial area of doctor-assisted suicide, a subject too complex for a teary romance to address properly. Jojo Moyes, the author of the book on which it is based, wrote it after hearing of a paralyzed athlete choosing suicide at a Swiss clinic, so with that as her inspiration, both Will and the film march to that inevitably unsatisfying conclusion with grim resolve.
There’s so much wrong with how it is handled, it’s hard to know where to begin. For one, there’s the fact that it didn’t have to be this way. After learning of Will’s suicide plans, Louisa tries to give him every reason she can muster to want to live and expects to change his mind until he proves her hopes to be in vain. If she had been successful, the story could have been a lovely and life-affirming tale, but that’s not what the storyteller intended at all.
In addition, Will’s response to Louisa spoils the most basic of romantic rules, loving the other more. By gently rebuffing Louisa’s efforts, Will is essentially saying, “You’re not good enough to live for.” Is it any wonder that Louisa reacts with anger and grief? It’s as if Will is given someone to make his life worth living, and he rejects her, supposedly for her own good. Because of the film’s predestined goal, it’s all about Louisa loving Will enough to accept his choice rather than Will loving her enough to stay. Then again, doesn’t the title Me Before You suggest that? I thought it had a strangely selfish ring to it, and now I see why. Not that Will sees it as selfishness; he believes he’s freeing Louisa and his family from his burden, but he ignores their pleas and the fact that it’s not as if they’re struggling financially. The film does try to bring other points of view in, such as Will’s mother’s objections and Louisa’s mother declaring his choice to be “no better than murder,” but again, the end result was decided from the beginning.
I don’t pretend to understand the agony that many with quadriplegia or other debilitating conditions endure, but I have to believe that life is better than death. Will comments that he loved his life before his accident and that it could never be the same. While that’s true, just because his life is not the same doesn’t mean it isn’t worth living. Success stories like Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, and Joni Eareckson Tada have proven that life need not be made void by handicaps, and many happy lives have risen from considerations of suicide, considerations that might have killed them early had they had access to the means, as Will does by the end. It’s a matter of hope and life, not dignity, and Will’s final words of encouragement to Louisa to “just live” are hollow next to his actions.
Me Before You could have been a lovely romance, and most of it is, with delightful early performances from Clarke and Claflin that are more crowd-pleasing than Oscar-winning. Yet the film’s stab at bittersweet euthanasia as an ending just ruins everything that came before, revealing its sympathy for the culture of death in a wholly unsatisfying way.
Best line: (Louisa, with the kind of touching line that is sadly ignored by Will) “You make me happy, even when you’re awful. I would rather be with you—even the you that you seem to think is diminished—than with anyone else in the world.”
Rank: Dishonorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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