Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Me Before You (2016)

Me Before You was 2016's summer romcom weepie that just happened to become one of the most controversial movies of the year.

The filmmakers only have themselves to blame. First there's the marketing campaign '#LiveBoldly or #DieQuickly?' that seemed to argue that the life of a disabled person wasn't worth a bean. And then there was this naive, troubling comment from director Thea Sharrock; 

"My nephew is in a wheelchair and I hope he will be pleased to see this shown in a way that does not make audiences too uncomfortable. If we had shown Will being taken in and out of his chair, or put in a hoist over a bath, the impression we would give is of difficulty. I wanted to make it more normal." 

You know what? If an audience feels 'uncomfortable' about that, fuck that audience. Diversity in entertainment is scarcer than an original idea. On the night I watched this over the Christmas period, it formed a double bill with the stand up comic Romesh Ranganathan's debut live DVD, Irrational. In his act, Ranganathan admits to feeling a strange frisson of surprise whenever he sees two men kissing in public, arguing that this immediate reaction stems from the fact that the mainstream media to this allegedly enlightened day refuses to show homosexuality as the norm. "I've seen more people get shot in the head than I've seen guys kissing" he points out, and it's so true. If you're making a film about disability, you simply have to show it as it actually is. You have to show that it is difficult - like life can be for everyone in fact  - but that disabled people can still find their level of normalcy for a rich and fulfilling life. Sharrock and Me Before You refuses to do that because it goes against their central romantic narrative and the philosophy at the heart of the film which is that a life with disability is an anathema to the Sam Claflin character. What sparked criticism was the fact that both the film and the characters within it seem accepting of this philosophy, and many disability campaigners argued that this was the wrong message to put out there. After all, suicide is considered a tragic thing in society and, when we hear or see representations of someone suffering from debilitating depression and mental health issues ultimately taking their own life, we express sentiments that this course of action is a waste, and therefore the wrong action to take. The critics issue with this film was that it seemed to think it was OK to suggest that suicide (or rather euthanasia) is acceptable for a physically disabled person, and that their life - such as it is - isn't worth living because it cannot be bold, active or exciting. But in reality there's just no such black and white argument to be had and the comparison that a life played safe and without ambition for fear of failure by an able-bodied person (Emilia Clarke) is on a par with the physically restricted life of a quadriplegic is a trite one.

I also feel I should add that when I first saw the poster for this film in the street it didn't even click with me that Claflin was disabled and in a chair, and you have to ask yourself how much of that was intentional on the marketing campaign's behalf - did they really want to airbrush the disability out in favour of the romance?

Which brings me to the other controversial, problematic issue with this film; yes, the romance. I don't want to bang on about this too much, because I think that my fellow Letterboxder reviewer and the all round superstar that is Vanina says it all far more eloquently than I can in her review on the site, but I will say that the romance at the heart of this film (and presumably at the heart of the source material; Jojo Moyes' bestselling novel of the same name) barely raises above the standard Mills and Boon fayre of 'small town girl meets rich aristocratic type and after frosty acrimonious start they reach an understanding and later find love (dependent either upon the male teaching the virginal female the physicality of love or, in this case, by being utterly unthreatening sexually) before changing her life completely by offering her his wealth'.

So, with all that in mind, why the fudge have I given it a rather favourable three out of five stars I hear you ask on Letterboxd? Why did I actually like this movie?

Well the answer is that, despite myself, I found this glossy piece of fluff actually quite charming and the main reason for that is the performances from Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke. The former manages to inject a degree of dignity and laconic wit to his role of the bitter and depressed quadriplegic, whilst the unbearably cute Clarke burns like the brightest star as the ditzy home help with the quirky, colourful wardrobe and sunny disposition not a million miles away from Poppy in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. I can't help it, I fell in love with Clarke here - and for a romantic movie, I guess that outcome is half the battle won. It's just a shame I guess that she couldn't shine as a romcom lead in a less troublesome production. Praise to the casting directors too who managed to find actors who actually looked convincingly alike enough to be the respective families of our two leads, and a nice little cameo from Joanna Lumley.

All in all, I found this much better than that other book-club-fave-turned-hit-movie One Day.

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