The public relations team for the romantic weepie Me Before You gave each member of the press a packet of tissues before the film screening, “in case you get sad.” I hesitate in revealing this, because it’s exactly what they wanted me to write. But the marketing strategy does allow me to say, without fear of spoilers, that the movie has an ending that most thinking, feeling humans would characterize as “sad.” It’s not a typical tearjerker, either, but a deeply polarizing turn that’s already stirring up controversy. And your reaction to this is what will largely determine your take on the film itself.
But before we get to endings, it’s best to start at the beginning. Me Before You was written by Jojo Moyes, based on her bestselling novel about a 26-year-old working-class woman who falls for a rich quadriplegic she’s been hired to care for in the quaint British castle town where they both live. The woman, Lou, is played by Emilia Clarke, Mother of Dragons — here forced to wait on the dude in the castle instead of seizing his territory for herself. Lou first takes the job because she has no other discernible skills and needs to support her family, but she’s got her work cut out for her: Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, Finnick from The Hunger Games) is a former high-powered businessman and extreme sports enthusiast who was cut down in his prime by a traffic accident, and his inability to accept his new reality two years later has turned him into an unrepentant mope, a crab who drives caregivers away by the handful.
Coming from a family of physical therapists, I can’t help but feel there should be more concrete details of Will’s life. We don’t see him navigate the new handicap-accessible annex of his parents’ castle, for example. He has a full-time therapist on staff, played by Stephen Peacocke, who instructs Lou not to worry about any of the medical stuff — the family has only hired her to “improve his morale,” which means taking him on trips, humoring him with her silly children’s songs and eccentric stripes-and-polka-dots fashions, and eventually falling for him over her longtime boyfriend, an obnoxious fitness freak and “entrepreneur” played by the charmingly daft Matthew Lewis. The hands-off approach to Will’s quadriplegia alienates the audience from the disability itself, though the film does nail the brand of gallows humor that often springs up in patients: When Lou first meets Will, he pretends to gurgle and writhe like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.
At one point, the physical therapist confides that Will’s condition seems especially hopeless. Coming from a medical professional who has assuredly seen far worse cases than Will’s (his brain is still in top form, after all, and he can navigate his wheelchair by himself), such an “insight” is cheap and uninformed, an easy way to justify the story’s eventual turn. That turn, when it does arrive, has disability awareness advocates up in arms (link contains spoilers).
Some of that outrage is misplaced. Will is a character, not a cause, and deserves the respect of individual agency. (“It’s his life and he can do what he wants” is a constant refrain.) But it’s true that Moyes and director Thea Sharrock haven’t laid enough track in their depiction of him to justify the shock of their ending. Why doesn’t he try to go back to work instead of stewing by himself all day, every day? Why isn’t he aware that anyone else in the world shares his same condition? He loves arthouse films — hasn’t he seen Murderball?
Will may get shortchanged, but at least Lou perseveres. It was a shrewd decision on Warner Bros.’ part to release Clarke’s first true star vehicle in the thick of the latest Game of Thrones season, but the timing also draws attention to the actress’ impressive range. She’s giddy fun here, bumbling through the world of the wealthy with a giant smile on her face. Her eyebrows command particular attention, pulling off wild calisthenics to make her far more expressive than she’s allowed to be as the always-bubbling pot of righteous fury that is Daenerys Targaryen. (She shares an early scene with Charles “Tywin Lannister” Dance, which might have been included so the fans could chuckle to themselves.)
Clarke is so engaging, in fact, that she winds up creating the lion’s share of whatever chemistry develops between her and Claflin, who’s far too emotionally stiff in the part — likely tied into why the film can’t sell Will’s arc. But because the story is really out for Lou’s redemption, not Will’s, it’s appropriate that Clarke’s star is what shines brighter on the other side. One day we will perhaps see more films treat physical impairment as a fact of life instead of constant tears and plaintive piano chords. Until then, we’re stuck arguing the Kleenex-worthiness of Me Before You.