Me Before You has the potential to be an uplifting story about the value of life, but does it end up being more insensitive than encouraging?
Will Traynor, once a highly successful banker, is experiencing life as a quadriplegic due to injuries sustained in a tragic accident two years ago. Before long, it’s made clear to us that Will can never regain his mobility. Louisa Clark is hired to serve as his new caregiver. She is upbeat and bubbly while Will is unapologetically cynical. At first, the two are like water and oil. However, Will eventually softens to Lou’s sunny disposition and a friendship starts to form. But when she discovers that Will has no desire to live and plans to have himself euthanized, Lou is understandably distressed. She endeavors to show him that life is worth living, even for a paralytic. On top of his disability, Will has been going through heartache, missing his old life and the freedom he used to enjoy, whereas Lou has been struggling to be content in a one-sided relationship with her boyfriend, Patrick (Matthew Lewis), while at the same time trying to help her family make ends meet. During their time together, Will and Lou begin to fill the gaping void in each other’s lives.
There are good performances all around. Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in particular have charming chemistry. Though Clarke seems to try too hard at times, I still enjoyed watching them act out the developing relationship between Will and Louisa. There are some touching moments that are only made deeper by their portrayals. I was especially impressed by Claflin (though not surprisingly because I really like him in the Hunger Games movies). Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly enough to redeem the film.
What we’d expect is a heartwarming story about a young man whose misery turns to joy when the love of a kindhearted girl pulls him from the brink. Sadly, that’s not what we get. Live life to the fullest – is that the sentiment that defines Me Before You? Or is it that you’re better off dead than living disabled?
Even after everything they’ve shared together, in spite of how much they mean to each other and in spite of everything Lou has done for him, Will is still determined to end his life. Will tells Lou that he doesn’t want to live life stuck in a wheelchair, depending on others, and that he would rather she live a full life without him than half a life with him. Well you know what? Maybe life without him is the half life. Maybe she needs him just as much as he’s needed her. The script paints a picture of a man so consumed by self pity and unnecessary guilt that he’s unable to see that he might be what this girl really needs. Consequently, he is willing to sacrifice the joy that his life brings her. Not only is her love not enough to make him stay, he’s also convinced that his love, his life, isn’t enough and that he’d only be holding her back. He’s so focused on what he can’t do for himself that he can’t see what he’s already doing for her. He therefore has no motivation to stick around for her sake. That is what truly makes this movie tragic.
There’s also a problem with the message projected through Will’s father (and through other characters, for that matter). His stance is that Will’s life is his to do with as he chooses, even if that means ending it. Perhaps Will is free to make his own decisions, but since when is free will a good reason to make it easier for someone to kill themselves? Is Will’s father (Charles Dance) so willing to make himself an accessory to suicide? What about exercising his own free will in an effort to convince his son that he’ll be making an irreparable mistake that will harm more people than just himself?
To their credit, at least initially, Lou and Will’s mother (Janet McTeer) refuse to condone Will’s choice. Lou quits her job and leaves, but later goes to Will to be with him at the end. Is this just an act by someone who doesn’t want a loved one to die alone, or is this also a gesture of unspoken acceptance?
Will’s last message to Lou is a plea for her to live life, and he’s even set aside funds to enable her to follow her dreams. While this may seem like a romantic, selfless gesture from beyond the grave, it’s overshadowed by a huge contradiction. He’s encouraging her to continue in her conviction that life is meant to be lived, offering the same advice which the film’s narrative insists that Will, himself, not take. Based on the example she’s been left with, how should she feel if, by some misfortune, she, too, becomes a quadriplegic? Should she still consider her life worth living then? Since Will gets what he wants, to what conclusion is that meant to lead us? That the disabled shouldn’t want to live? That they have no reason to live? That they have nothing to give and should have nothing to enjoy?
Consider, if you would for a moment, Stephen Hawking. Hawking is considered by many to be one of the world’s premier scientific minds. He’s also severely disabled, more extensively than Will. It would appear his outlook on life is such that he still believes it’s worth living. It would seem to me that he believes he still has something to give. To the best of my knowledge, Hawking is an atheist. While I’m sure his views differ with a Christian worldview on numerous counts, that doesn’t mean his life can’t teach us something – like maybe being a paralytic doesn’t make your life worthless.
I once heard a story years ago about a young man who lost the use of his legs after a serious car accident. He, too, found himself “stuck” in a wheelchair. You know what happened? His perspective on life changed. For the better. Not only did his perspective change, he changed. For the better. He became the kind of Christian of whom Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement,” would have been proud. He didn’t allow his disability to embitter him. Instead, he clung to God and became a positive influence to those around him.
That’s the One presence which isn’t given any leeway in this film: God.
1 Corinthians 12:7-9 ~ there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
One of my aunts, the oldest of my mom’s siblings, had a lot more than just a thorn in the flesh. She suffered from a severe form of a rare, incurable disease. When I say suffer, I mean it. Over the course of eight years it slowly but steadily ravaged her body, causing her organs to harden and shut down. Her skin, at first sensitive, soon became painful to the touch. Her body grew rigid and unresponsive in places. It got so bad that she couldn’t function on her own and the pain just grew worse and worse. Eventually, everything she did required some form of assistance. But during all the years she went through that adversity, she saw life as a gift. Every day was a blessing, no matter what. She didn’t just value her own life, she valued the lives of those around her. She was going to use every moment she was given to share her Godly influence and love her family in any way she could. Even if all she could do was draw breath, she had something to give. My aunt drew her final breath in January of this year. She is one of the most inspiring individuals I’ve ever known. What she endured was one of the most debilitating, disfiguring conditions I’ve ever witnessed. But you know what else I saw? God’s power made perfect in weakness. His love and might shone through her so brightly it was blinding.
There are individuals all over the world experiencing disability, debilitation, or infirmity, for one reason or another, who are proving every day that if you’ve got a heart, then you do have something to give. Their bodies may be damaged or incomplete, but that doesn’t mean they have to be. It doesn’t mean they can’t live a full life, and it doesn’t mean that love isn’t reason enough for them to be alive. The film may adequately portray and raise awareness to the challenges and difficulties these souls face, but does its philosophy undermine the positive impact this could have? How well you live isn’t just determined by how many things you get to cross off your bucket list or how many of your dreams you get to chase and whether or not you can do those things with full range of motion. It’s about how fully you love.
Cliche though it may sound, actions really do speak louder than words. Me Before You tries to tell us one thing but shows us something completely different. “Clumsy treatment of a sensitive subject.” That’s part of the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. Respectfully, isn’t that a little generous? Shouldn’t it also be considered irresponsible? Damaging, even? While Clarke’s and Claflin’s performances are noteworthy (Claflin’s more so than Clarke’s, though), can that alone make this film a wise expenditure of time? I mean, until you get to the end, it’s actually a decent movie. Smart and witty, though a little off-color sometimes, it powerfully illustrates the struggles of disability. But, regrettably, the final conclusion is anything but encouraging. Me Before You wants us to think it’s an emotional love story, but what it delivers is a dangerously skewed perspective about quality living that Christians should not embrace.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some suggestive material.