Me Before You Before Fiction

Tuesday, Jun 14, 2016, 12:35 PM | Source: The Conversation

Lauren Rosewarne

In the lead up to its US release, American television was running a curious tout. Apparently, Me Before You was better than The Fault in Their Stars.

Um, way to set the bar nice and low.

Along with the laughably low-ball ads, it’s been impossible to ignore the savage criticism. Complete with protests.

Complaints weren’t about its mawkishness - it’s an unapologetic weepie afterall - but about the portray of disability. Spoiler alert: by the end, the leading man, Will (Sam Claflin), elects to partake of assisted suicide in Switzerland. Cue the backlash.

Judged purely on entertainment value the film is passable. Passable particularly because the day after seeing it I’d watch The Nice Guys, a film that makes Me Before You look like a masterpiece. But it’s passable more simply because it tells the very story it sets out to: a colourful lass with a song in her heart, joy in her step and one helluva dance in her brow transforms the life - and death - of the man in her care.

Passable doesn’t however, mean it’s not highly irritating. On the contrary. I haven’t see a face over-emote as much as Lou’s (Emilia Clarke) since Joaquin Phoenix’s in Her. Against all reason, against all acting conventions, she manages to make Theodore’s eyebrows look like the laziest tufts of fluff imaginable. Equally, akin to the only reason why Insterstellar remains memorable - for Matthew McConoughey’s constant use of his daughter’s name, “Murph” - the sheer number of times Will calls Lou by her surname, “Clark”, is just plain brutal.

So what about the elephant/wheelchair in the room? What’s to be made of Will’s euthanasia and his bequest of pastry and perfume and Paris?

My first retort is it’s just fiction. It’s just one story, one character, and to extrapolate global statements about social views on disability, on disposability, on dependence, is hyperbole. It’s just one man, one wheelchair and one set of choices.

If, as most most scholars are inclined, we understand that the media has minimal effect on viewers at best, what really is the problem with a fictional character choosing euthanasia? Does anyone really believe that Will’s character is so charming, so charismatic, that he’ll actually have a contagion effect? Surely critics aren’t really pretending that Me Before You is somehow more potent than every other film that’s ever gone before it?

Of course, I say all that in the same breath as acknowledging that things are rarely so simple.

Can it be ever really be just one man, one wheelchair, in a world where disabled lives are seldom seen? Do pop culture portrayals of minorities hold more weight when they’re so rare? Do these hen’s teeth depictions - notably so when they end in death - become additionally meaningful (and additionally problematic) in a society that still marginalises these same people off screen?

More complicated questions. Afterall, it’s only very recently that the importance of counting gay and lesbian representations has waned with the recognition that representation is so much for than a numbers game.

Attending an early morning screening of Me Before You was an odd affair. Women, mostly arriving on their own, seemingly self-consciously elected to sit in empty rows. Much sobbing transpired long before anything remotely sad happened. Testimony, of course, to the power of a book. I hadn’t read it, no, but I know this caper all too well. In 2011, I saw the highly crap cinema adaption of David Nicholl’s wonderful One Day and too soon was bawling like a baby. Of course. Because the film capitalised on all the devastation that the book conjured. Me Before You had six million in book sales: the film was always going to lead to bums on seats and soggy tissues left in cup-holders.

A forgettable, relatively innocuous film that’s getting far more attention than it’s due. And certainly uninteresting enough to warrant this amount of hoopla.

Me Before You opens in Australia on June 16

The Conversation

University of Melbourne Researchers