Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie, this post contains full plot spoilers.
Last night, I re-watched the Thea Sharrock (director) film, Me Before You, and I really enjoyed it the first time I saw it a month ago. It had been described to me as an empowering text on making choices about living with invisible disability, especially as I am someone with a pain disorder (currently being investigated) regularly doing physio therapy, on pain relief and also in recovery for my wellness of longterm mental health disabilities I live with.
The fact is, I also loved it the second time because the cast is so impossibly charming but it caused me real issues now that I’ve digested and thought about it possibly because the narrative about dis/Ability is a troubling one. The leading character, Will, is a chronically wheelchair bound former member of a prestigious young and rich London set living it up and loving living large. He now now finds himself dis/Abled, mobility impaired in a wheelchair and living with his noble parents in the countryside after being hit by a motorcycle in the rain and hating life. His fiancée leaves him for his best friend, Rupert if that wasn’t insult enough.
Gorgeous Emilia Clarke plays the endearingly quirky Lou, hired to be a carer and companion to Will in the last half year of his life by his mother who wants her to be more “a friend rather than a carer”. Lou has no idea at the beginning of her tenure as his companion, that Will is considering assisted dying in Switzerland in six months time. Yet when she finds out his plan, after getting over the idea she’s on glorified “suicide watch”, Lou has a conversation with her sister (Jenna Coleman of Doctor Who fame) about making Will’s last six months about the quality of his life, not the quantity. Sadly Lou falls -into what I find offensive – trap of the angel in the house device and plots to take her sister’s idea a step further and change Will’s little left over autonomy by changing his mind and opening up his world again as if Will had no idea how good life could be. This is one of the film’s fundamental flaws that it’s about opening up Lou’s potential at the exponential of ending or completing Will’s life now he is dis/Abled.
There is no true partnership equality here, the power balance is always in Lou’s favour granting her more and more agency (that may be by Will’s intended design as he plans to end his life) but he loses more and more autonomy as Lou is freed from constraints such as her insensitive sporty fiancé, the small town they grew up in and the poverty of rural England. Dis/ability is being used as a trap in a plot device to free a quirky dynamic heroine to fulfil her potential while diminishing Will’s legacy and granting him nothing more than the tragic role of the sacrificial benefactor. I have problems with the fact it’s always about trying to implement what Lou thinks best for Will and that there is no power struggle in the juxtaposition between the protagonists.
Lou sweeps in, ever the heroine, trying to save Will with humorous romance, medically approved misadventure and exotic sexy visits to impossible tropical paradises to make the last six months special. She also believes she can change his mind about assisted suicide ignoring Will’s stated desire despite being of sound mind and mentally component to make his own palliative care decisions with a fantasy trip.
Lou even deludes herself in thinking that the love of a good woman will save and redeem Will’s misery from the pain of living a life of quadraplegia and excruciating pain. Ultimately she fails to convince him to change the six months he promised his parents after all and still with misgivings, Lou flies to Stizerland to be with Will when he goes at the end of his allotted time where his assisted suicide takes place surrounded by his family in beautiful surroundings. I personally think assisted dying laws don’t stop people from dying but actually create a quality of life for the terminally ill with the least amount of suffering.
What troubles me so much about Me Before You is that it attempts to look at all the perspectives of dis/Ability from all the points of view but Will’s reasons for choosing assisted suicide bothered me given his condition is chronic and he can continue to live even assisted. There’s no dignity in it, but there is no dignity in assistance when you get older either. There have been times I’ve begged my family for permission to commit suicide because I could not bear my chronic dis/Ability, most recently as this year. But unlike Will’s I was not given their blessing and managed to pass through the pain and suffering. The thing is that pain is inevitable in life and suffering is optional which is what makes Me Before You so controversial. I do believe people have a right to choose a good death but how and the political agendas are just too big an issue to fully discuss here but I will say that with chronic illness and injury and help available with reasonable quality of life, I don’t believe in suicide, assisted or otherwise. I’m glad my suffering passed even though the pain is a constant daily struggle for now.
On their last night on holidays in the fim, Will tells Lou he is going through with death with dignity because he can’t bear to see her waste her opportunities in living a full life or regret even a moment with him as a wheel chair bound quadriplegic by holding her back despite her protections of love not standing between them.
For Will, it’s that he cannot assume his new normal as a dis/Abled man because “loved his old life, I want to remember life as me” and then mansplains how he believes to Lou we have a responsibility to live our lives to complete potential and being with him robs of that. He explains that his accident is “my mother’s favourite story” and paints himself as a victim rather than just dis/Abled from the beginning. Yet using this reasoning of victimhood (and leaving the out the burden of pain described by Nathan the medical character that explains debilitating side of Will’s condition as an audience stand in), Will is essentially unwilling to acclaimate to his new life in any real way or commit to recovery even though Lou offers him an option to choosing wellness and yet Will continues to describe his life with a dis/Ability as an unbearable condition (despite a lot of the film showing otherwise a few hospital scenes showing Will’s “bad days”).
Coleman’s character as Lou’s sister is astute in noting that quality at the end of life is just as important as length of life; and Josie, Lou’s mother, outright rejects the idea of Will’s right to choose death with dignity entirely equivocating it with participating in murder and Lou’s father convinces her to fly to Switzerland go to see Will off saying no one could have saved him from himself because Will had set his mind on it and was exercising his right to end his life.
What I find extremely disturbing about this film is that the focus of Will’s did/Ability is all about the negative consequences for him and his death is a forgone conclusion at the very beginning of the story. The story of dis/Ability is about Lou’s journey rather than any of Will’s experiences except the negative. It casts him as a victim whose only mechanism of regaining empowerment and agency is through a dignified death assisted suicide. It’s about the changes Will makes for Lou rather than Will and Lou adjusting to a romantic relationship between an able bodied character and the potential they had despite difficulties that could be overcome. That would have made a more interesting and realistic love story to me – what is the price of love? What is she had stayed?
What I find particularly offensive in the film is that Nathan, when mansplaining to Lou again that Will is able bodied in his dreams of extreme sports but wakes up screaming as a mobility impaired character, is that we are supposed to be horrified and it’s such an ablest mentality. Will describes the fact he likes to remember when he was in Paris before the accident and sends Lou there as a parting gesture, but people revisit and relive places all the time as dis/Abled individuals with all the inconvenience and annoyance brings. So perhaps quality of life is an issue bought up by this conversation but it seems particularly weak, because we all like particular memories of pleasant experiences the way they were but memories just become stories in time.
In opposition to Will, I remember my life before being diagnosed with bipolar and searching for the origins of my mystery pain and I don’t treasure the before as much as the present. Will is living in a past he can’t let go of and that bothers me greatly that the first significant mobility impairs dis/Abled character on the cinema (minus Professor Charles Xavier and his mutants), is unable to evolve and become resilient despite being offered the chance at a comfortable recovery even if it wasn’t his ideal world that he couldn’t go back to as he explains in the dinner scene and Nathan mansplains to the audience again that the physio is for maintanance only. This is an ableist film made some author could find a redeeming story about dignity Witt death. I have no problem with choosing quality over quantity of life, I do have a problem when there is no real between offered in a text like this. I may talk about If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman as a better text on dis/Ability abs recovery on Mia’s experiences next week about the third road of recovery.
Which brings me to how this involves living as a dis/Abled and Enabled archaeology student. I belong to a group on Facebook that found me after I posted Broken Archaeologist about how I was creating my own opportunities as a third road to completely hopeless victim or trying to keep up with the other archaeology students when I couldn’t and when the department and I recognised this, we changed the degree to allow me to fulfil my potential. I’m now in a leadership program and hoping in 2017 to be part of an international change organisation (AIESEC) learning the skills I need to improve dis/Ability in Australian archaeology and best practice methodology for Enabled archaeologists in my subjects if approved next year.
Instead of leaving you with Clark’s bumblebee tights and stock scenes of Paris, I’m going to illustrate the third road to recovery by showing you a few pictures of me at Post Modern Jukebox back in September 2016 on my crutches from articular chondral fissuring in my knee. I still know how to have fun despite pain and mobility impairment but living with mental illness has given me the resilience to deal when things aren’t perfect because my life never is and disability is not a thing one needs to be set free from but embrace to truly live with it. Grab it with both figurative hands and live your life to it’s fullest capabilities rather than becoming like Will in the film and having your limitations define you and own your future as well as your past as regrets, disability doesn’t have to be only sorrow or redemption. You only really have right now to be alive and living, so be strong and try to see it for what you can do, it doesn’t really matter what’s ahead of you since as Gregory House said it best when there is no good and dignified way to die. There’s just dying and dying is boring, so own your present and be brave for your future and try to do it anyway. A very special thanks to Post Morden Jukebox and Thebarton Theate, it was a great night and PMJ & the theatre crew treated me brilliantly! #pmjadelaide #mebeforeyou
Clara Rosetta Santilli