Trying to make a statement in the already saturated rom-com genre, Me Before You attempts to be quirky yet thought provoking in order to cement its place in the hearts of audiences. However, the film is perhaps over-ambitious and, in its attempts to keep a sense of kookiness, forgets what’s at the heart of this tragic tale: love, pain, and disability.
After Will Traynor was made disabled after getting hit by a motorbike, Louisa Clarke is employed by his family to look after him. With the Traynor family being rich enough to own the local castle, Louisa’s working class background makes her the ultimate juxtaposition to Will. Yet, despite their differences, a fruitful romance starts to blossom. However, after being confused by Mrs. Traynor’s comment that Louisa is simply employed to ‘cheer him up’, Louisa later finds out that Will is set on undergoing a euthanasia procedure. With a long term boyfriend already in hand (played by Mather Lewis, aka Neville Longbottom) who she increasingly comes to see as a symbol of the dullness of her life before the Traynors, Louisa has to choose between responsibility and love, between her past and her future.
In the same way Will holds back from fully investing himself in Louisa, the film also feels like it’s holding back its full emotional impact. The extent of Louisa and Will’s feelings for each other are only alluded to and without any final expression of their intense feelings for each other, the film feels oddly ungrounded. Their relationship lacks a final cementing that would allow audiences to fully invest in them.
Furthermore, the film’s reliance on clichés to express characters’ emotional well-being means we are only given a superficial insight into characters; they remain largely two-dimensional. Louisa is pinned up as the common working class girl in juxtaposition to Will’s wealth. Her ditsy personality does offer some relief to the film’s darker moments, and Will’s birthday present to her of a pair of yellow and black stripe ‘bumblebee tights’ certainly brightens up the film in more ways than one. However, at times she comes across as that working class girl who is too out there to be realistic, and too dim to not be frustrating.
It is this lack of personal intimacy that prevents the film from being totally engaging. Interestingly, one of the film’s most moving scenes comes when Louisa and Will attend Will’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding, in which she is marrying one of Wills’ (former) best friends who she turned to after no longer being to cope with Will’s post-accident depression. During the service, the camera cuts to an image of Will, silently crying, trapped in his wheelchair. But what is most moving about the scene is that it is here that the film treats Will at his most human. He is not a disabled man at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, but a man that is overcoming various emotional and physical battles.
From the heart-breaking to the heart-warming, the scene then later shows a drunk Louisa sitting on Will’s lap who lustfully rolls them across the dance floor before racing out across the fields together in a drunken and love-filled euphoria. The couple is propelled across the fields by love and, for a fleeting moment, we get the impression that Will and Louisa are just like every other couple in love. Every couple faces challenges and, in this moment, Will’s disability becomes secondary to the exploration of love under limitations.
Ultimately, the controversy the film has gained reflects a lot about the film’s handling of disability. In an attempt to be quirky, the film takes topics like disability, euthanasia, and death and puts a childish stamp on them, meaning we fail to engage fully with characters and their emotional journeys. The film thereby comes to resemble the wardrobe of protagonist Louisa: too ambitious, overpowering and in need of a touch-up. While Louisa’s fashion sense and bumblebee tights may be bold, the film, conversely, is not.
Words by Juliette Rowsell