The cinematic failings of Me Before You unravelled with the assistance of disabled director, Elinor Rowlands.
Me Before You has received an unprecedented amount of backlash from the disabled community for its underlying message that ‘people are better off dead than disabled’.
Critics have slammed the film for its sentimental regurgitation of the cliché drama rom-com, which sees Emilia Clarke play 26-year-old Louise Clark, caregiver for quadriplegic Will (Sam Claflin). Clarke plays the role with such silly gusto that she is, frankly, excruciating to watch. Claflin fares a little better. His silent contempt of Clarke is relatively amusing, albeit basic- close-ups where he stares blankly and puzzlingly at the camera. But the main criticism is Clarke’s eyebrows, thick brown caterpillars that curl and waggle impishly. They intrude on every scene, every close-up, long shot and pan. Subsequently, the director should have asked Clarke to tone it down a notch, for she is a rather good actress, just not here. Her eccentricity was marred by her idiocies and follies and of course, by those brows, which seemed to be the focal of every scene.
Hitherto, it is its depiction of disability where the film incurs its heaviest criticism. Elinor tells me, ‘they got it all wrong’ in Will’s feeble portrayal of a man, “not well and therefore not able to”.
“Just because he can’t actually fuck her, he therefore has to die. He has a tongue he can do other things! And people forget that there are other ways.”
Elinor takes offence in the depiction of Will as sexually incapable and impotent.
Comparatively, as an able-bodied man he has a profound appreciation for boobs and blondes. His likeness with the red-blooded specimen James Bond is explicitly referenced. Will was once very sexually virile. However, now confined to a wheelchair where he can ‘look but not touch’, one of his reasons for assisted suicide is, “I don’t want to look at your naked body and not do anything.”
“That is incomplete horse shit. He CAN do something, and so can she,” Elinor informs me.
Sexual prowess and capabilities aside, Claflin’s depiction of Will is one dimensional. He is cinematically dull. He lacks authenticity and he doesn’t have the maturity and capabilities as an actor to bring an empathetic understanding to the role. Sitting straight-backed in a chair with a hollow and vacant expression just doesn’t cut it. There is so much more he could have done, and one seriously questions the director’s guidance.
Director Thea Sharrock is evidently new to the silver screen. A veteran theatre director, Me Before You marks her film debut. Her conventional choice of mise-en-scène falls flat. Rich, disabled boy resides in a castle, poor girl from the village. It is an aged tale, and while Sharrock is merely following the conventions of the novella, I would have thought an artistic director of London’s Southwark could have used a little more imagination. For example, the use of Pembroke Castle as the seat of the Traynor family is utterly puzzlingly. It is one of Wales’s most celebrated and revered public attractions, why she chooses to use that castle amazes me. Surely, the privately owned Manorbier up the road would have been a far better choice? It was just so incongruous to imagine.
Pembroke privately owned by the laconic quadriplegic and his family.
Ultimately, Me Before You falls flat. “The person is boring,” Elinor tells me. “The stories of the people get lost because they spend the whole time on this sob story.” Sharrock amps up the soppiness with a poor, commercial soundtrack, in-your-face close-ups and pantomime acting. Ideally, she should have spent a little more time working with her leading actors, and a little less time being trigger happy with the zoom button. Close-ups can work well cinematically. Yet the trick, like all artistic endeavors, is not to overdo. It is a conventional and accepted shot within the realms of cinema, but it is also rather simple. I know why Sharrock favoured it; it is an easy way to transition emotion. However, as an artistic theatre director she should have done better. Chiaroscuro lighting, arc shots, and wide tracks; the statutory and overused close-up only heightens her directorial immaturity.
However, while we may chastise Me Before You for its political inaccuracies, plot failings and character flaws, what really can we expect from a book by JoJo Moyes? While the film was always going to incur criticism for a bland and politically incorrect portrayal of a quadriplegic, Sharrock’s cinematic portrayal was poor. Emilia Clarke needed to tone it down; Sam Claflin needed to be more convincing as a sick man, both mentally and physically. However, the periphery characters were excellent. Charles Dance plays Will’s father. He is impenetrable, slightly cold, but evidently distressed by his son’s condition. The most touching scene of the film was a pan shot revealing Dance and Claflin watching a Liverpool game together. It was shown for a brief moment, but it was poignant. Why couldn’t we see more of that?
Sentimentality and poignancy doesn’t need to be soppy puppy eye close-ups. Often the banal is the most powerful. The critically acclaimed Brendan Cole plays Clarke’s father, and lends the role an emotional maturity that is completely lacking in his daughter. Samantha Spiro is Clarke’s spirited mother, and with Janet McTeer doing a commendable performance as Will’s.
Me Before You incurs the wrath of disability groups, for, as Elinor suggests, “the depiction of disability in mainstream cinema is correct in the eyes of society to keep them in the fringes of society.” Personally, I don’t think JoJo Moyes wrote her novella with this in mind. Like Nicholas Sparks, they both need to enrich their bland romantic prose and therefore choose characters with a decisively complicated backstory, or who are marred by disability or trauma. As writers they don’t have any social or political intentions, they merely want to sell copy. The effect of using disability for commercial profit is detrimental, especially when it is so poorly done.
Consequently, if you have any qualms with how the disabled are depicted in the arts, Me Before You will only infuriate.
Rather, I would suggest the French film The Intouchables. A poignant and brazenly honest story about the real life quadriplegic Phillipe Pozzo di Borgo and his French-Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou. It succeeds where Me Before You fails. Warm and honest, and not afraid to show the audience the pain and suffering quadriplegics endure, the caregiver removing faces by hand and the hot sweats and nightmares brought on by the enormous amount of pills consumed. There is no over sentimentality wish-wash, no trigger hungry cameraman with a fetish for the zoom.
Additionally, there are no cha-cha eyebrows that control and demand to be the focal of every shot.
Me Before You,
12A, 110mins *