Me Before You is a robust romcom about Lou Clark, a gawky, charming caregiver (Emilia Clarke) who falls in love with her paraplegic client, Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). With the excellent chemistry between Lou and Will, and Clarke's brilliant comedic acting, the movie's romantic aspects nearly never oversteps into cliche or troupe territory, but neither does it disown its romcom heritage: it proudly follows the conventional star-crossed lovers narrative and includes the much-loved romcom conventions such the voiceover-read letter and the indulgent use of montage. Me Before You authentically celebrates its romcom-ness whilst also pushing the genre boundary by incorporating a much darker than usual theme – namely, assisted suicide.
Whether that boundary was successfully, considerately pushed is another matter. To my mind, director Thea Sharrock doesn't give assisted suicide and the gravity of such a decision its necessary dues to justify its inclusion into the plot. The complexity of such a decision made by a man who was rendered paraplegic isn't at all fully appreciated and clumsily handled. A couple of throwaway comments made by Lou's mother, "It's murder!" and Will's mother, "But I love him. I thought we could convince him otherwise", summarise the debate. Emotive music by Craig Armstrong and tearful glances are futile attempts to compensate for the lack of dialogue on the matter.
The most unsatisfying aspect of this lack of treatment of the topic is that the euthansia-bent Traynor is, for the most part, well off. In some ways, he comes across as a bit short sighted. (Spoiler alert) He's a man who refuses to accept the way his life is now after a tragic accident and refuses to continue with his life because of that denial. He can still run his company if he wishes, he can still love another person, he can still travel the world, but because of his lessened physical ability, it doesn't suffice.
In most cases where euthanasia is requested, patients are in incredible pain, absolutely debilitated and within months of guaranteed death. In one way, by grouping Traynor with those patients, it makes light of their plights. In another, by telling a story where a ridiculously rich, charming and handsome paraplegic thinks that his life is futile and that he 'would only hold others back' and that the unselfish thing to do would be for him to take his life, the movie's creators send a very negative message to any person with a disability.
Disability rights campaigners have already called it a "disability snuff movie". Francesco Clark, whose autobiography Walking Papers was referred to in the film without his permission, is actively disassociating his name from the movie. "I've worked tirelessly to show people that being quadriplegic isn't the end of your life, it's another beginning," he said. "While I am by no means taking a stance on the issue of assisted suicide, I feel compelled to express that I am angry to be unwittingly associated with a storyline that suggests the only option for those who sustain injuries like mine is death," he told The Guardian.
Yet in spite of this, it is still somewhat heartening to see mainstream cinema try to take on a serious, contemporary issue, even if it isn't capable within its conventional restraints to do more than give it a slight nod of intellectual acknowledgement and a flood of emotional moments. Personally, I hope that Me Before You becomes a gateway movie for other mainstream films to include conversations about more serious issues like euthanasia more often - albeit hopefully in a more considerate, nuanced manner.