It’s based on a beloved romantic novel, it boasts two hugely talented and attractive people in the leading roles, and it’s copped a serious drubbing for what its critics say is a tone deaf, clichéd and offensive depiction on living with disability. Romantic drama Me Before You is the most talked about film of the year, and for all the wrong reasons.
Directed by Thea Sharrock and adapted from the novel by Jojo Moyes, Me Before You charts the relationship that develops between Will (Sam Claflin), a banker who is paralysed following a motorcycle accident, and Lou (Emilia Clarke), the young woman hired to care for him. The kicker is that Will, abhorred by a life of physical incapacity, wants out: he plans on undertaking assisted suicide in Switzerland.
According to Moyes, this exploration of love, disability and voluntary euthanasia was inspired by the experiences of family members who required assisted living, along with a chance news story she heard. “…I had two relatives at the time who required 24 hour care, just to stay alive, and so the issue of quality of life was very big in my family at the time. Trying to work out how to give some kind of dignity and pleasure to lives that were completely devoid of it, at that point, and at the same time I was driving with my kids one day, and I heard a news story about a young man who had been an athlete, a sportsman really, who had suffered a catastrophic accident on the sports field and been left a quadriplegic, and several years after that had persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas, which is a centre for assisted suicide in Switzerland.”
Moyes maintains that the book was well received by the disabled community. “I have to say, the book has had an almost uniformly positive response from readers. I was expecting a little bit of blowback. It has not really materialised! In fact, I’ve had the opposite! I’ve been contacted by quadriplegics and their care givers, to say that they felt that I portrayed their lives.”
The same cannot be said of the film. Disability advocates have been heavily protesting the film, both online and at cinemas screening it.
Jax Jacki Brown, one of the organisers behind protests at Melbourne screenings, puts it bluntly. “When able-bodied people are depressed we talk suicide prevention, when people with disabilities are depressed we talk about euthanasia.” In her view, Me Before You is another in a long line of cinematic depictions of disability: see also Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside, even Avatar. The “better off dead” trope is a disturbingly common one, and positive depictions of living with disability are thin on the ground.
In her excellent piece on Junkee, Brown lays out her objections. “As a wheelchair user, I am deeply concerned that this film perpetuates these messages: that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living, and that people with disabilities cannot be worthy partners. It places people who have newly acquired disabilities, or young people with congenital disabilities who may be experiencing depression and grief as a result of this at further risk of self-harm or suicide.”
Activist and blogger, Carly Findlay, concurs. “The main message the film conveys is that death is a better option than living with a disability. Will ends his life because he has a disability. That’s the only reason. He cannot live differently to the way he lived prior to his accident. He has the wealth and support to live a comfortable life – which many people with disabilities don’t have.” Further, she cites it as yet another example of disabled people existing in film solely to impart wisdom on and empower able-bodied protagonists – not so much a Magical Negro as a Magical Cripple. “The film highlighted the expectation of a non-disabled person to be a hero, to save the disabled. Louisa took care of Will and she learnt a lesson. She told him that. She needs him to be a better person. Disabled people are not your teaching moments.”
Representation is also at the heart of the other problem inherent in Me Before You: the notion of an able-bodied actor “crippling up” to play a role.
The backlash against “racelifting” – casting white actors in roles originally depicted as people of colour – is fairly well known now, even if it’s sometimes because of talking points like Zoe Saldana not being black enough to play Nina Simone. Crippling up, meanwhile, has gone unremarked upon for decades – hell, Daniel Day Lewis’s performance in My Left Foot is held up as a high water mark of commitment to craft. The idea that this is both offensive to disabled people and robbing disabled actors of employment opportunities for which they are uniquely suited is invisible in the broader culture – perhaps because an able actor portraying a disabled character is viewed, explicitly or not, as a signifier of talent.
“It is a bit of a known truth that if you want to win an Oscar in Hollywood you play a person with disability,” Brown observes. “Because somehow people see that as worthy of praise and awards and money. but when people with disabilities live this reality we are told the message that your life is not worth living, you’re better off dead. I would love to see people with disabilities playing roles of people with disabilities, and bringing the lived knowledge and skills we have to the roles. I want to see a diversity of disability on screen and a diversity of stories – I want to see people with disabilities as parents, as lovers and valuable partners, as full complex and rich people who are valued and contribute to society.”