Recognising a capacity for empathy can be a ‘core capability for modern citizens’ and is certainly in line with ending prejudice on the grounds of race, gender, race, sexuality, physical and mental disability, a major focus for many people and organisations following World War II.
So many young men and women ended up with shocking physical and mental disabilities reducing their capacity to live a normal life; if war injuries didn’t destroy their chances the dreaded disease polio that rampaged around the world not long afterwards, certainly did.
Disability is a subject that has the capacity to cause unhappiness, discomfort and distress and divide the community, no matter however sensitively its stories are told, or whether those involved in bringing them to the fore have good intentions or not.
Education is the most valuable resource we have for growing human empathy globally. It is important for those wanting to keep hope and love alive while working towards achieving a peaceful, just and sustainable world society.
English theatre director Thea Sharrock has brought the challenging themes of both disability and euthanasia to the fore in her first feature film Me Before You, a movie which addresses subjects that more than likely will never see everyone on the same page.
Please don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
The film relates the story William Traynor (Sam Claflin) whose parents fulfill the ancient role of Lord and Lady of a medieval castle in a small village in England.
The great castle overlooks and overpowers the village below, simply because of its grand foreboding presence. For centuries it’s a place where all the people in the district have looked to for help in times of trouble, as the ‘Lord of the Manor’ if he was a ‘good man’ cared for the welfare of his tenants.
Will, the heir to his father’s estate is a handsome man of 30 something who is seen by all his business colleagues as an ironman, an outstanding achiever, one they can all look up to. He is living what he and they perceive as a ‘perfect’ life. Then in a brief instant, Will finds he is unable to move at all unaided and has been left to live his life in myriads of pain.
Suddenly and unexpectedly hit by a man on a motorbike while crossing a road in the city talking on his mobile phone, Will’s is a cautionary tale. His spinal cord was severed in a split second and the injury, which has no known cure, ensures that Will’s life and all those people who surround him, support him and love him has changed forever.
He now only has an ability to move his eyes and one finger, which he uses to drive his motorised wheelchair, the one thing he can do for himself.
His father Stephen Traynor, another fine characterisation from Charles Dance, has come back to live with his former wife Camille for a six month period, a fine understated performance from Janet McTeer.
Will’s parents have reluctantly agreed to support his decision to seek assisted dying, setting him up in the meantime in a bespoke apartment in the former stables of the castle.
Will is giving his mother the gift of six months grace to come to terms with losing her much loved son and she is doing her best to use the time to change his mind.
Silver screen culture can too often seem to create a world dominated by sensation and process rather than by content, significance and narrative as the modern news media can sometimes be seem intent on ensuring the populace remains in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage.
Me Before You is a story that has caused considerable controversy ever since it was first published in January 2012. Based on the novel by author Jojo Moyes who is also the film’s screenwriter, it is not the first film criticised for what it says, or importantly doesn’t say about living with a disability be it mental or physical.
Will needs daily practical help from his strongman ‘lifter’ Nathan (Aussie actor Stephen Peacocke), a healthcare worker. He has decided to end his life through euthanasia, a subject that sees most people divided on moral grounds.
He hasn’t had any cause to change his mind, well at least until he meets the delightful, cute and caring companion in her mid 20’s his mother has hired, and they fall in love.
However this doesn’t happen until two years after his accident, and it sneaks up on them both gradually over a month of two of daily acquaintance.
His mother Camilla concerned for her son’s emotional state of mind has employed a number of companions to cheer him up. They have all failed miserably and walked out within a few days.
Advertising yet again, Camilla meets and interviews the lovely Louisa, a bright, bubbly effervescent young local lady, who seemingly has no prejudice and a positive outlook on life.
Will’s life has since his accident, thrived on embracing sarcasm a negative emotion he wields to great effect to hurt others. Lou he is to discover, is somehow immune.
Lou has recently lost the only job she has had for six years at a local café, where her kindness and caring beyond self has been valued and appreciated by the elderly local inhabitants, who enjoy an outing now and then to have tea.
However, economic times are tough and the café has to shut down so she comes to the Castle seeking work. Her family needs Lou to keep bring home a wage to add to the family pool, a time honoured English tradition.
Her father has been out of work for the past year and as her prospective new employers are going to pay above the basic wage her family is excited and elated for her, hoping it will aid her future prospects as well.
Acclaimed young actors Sam Claflin as William (Will) Traynor and Emilia Clarke as Louisa (Lou) Clark are both star turns.
Their story will turn out to be all about real life and love actually, although as Lou finds out that doesn’t always mean the sort of ‘happy ending’ she is used to in the novels she reads, on television or at the movies.
Lou’s family live in the village in an atmosphere of homeliness, where people of her parent’s age were used to fitting into a class structure that thankfully her generation does not want to accept.
She has no plans because deep down she is afraid to dream about life beyond the picturesque landscape she lives in and the exercise crazed boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) she has been dating for seven years, who is only focused on himself.
Little does Lou know or understand that her experience as a companion to this at first emotionally distant, frustrating and very sad disabled man consumed with bitterness, will change her life forever too.
Louisa seems to have no real understanding of what unconditional love is all about, and actually how hard the concept of putting you before me without question really is, especially when you find out you are beginning to care what happens to your charge when you become responsible for his emotional well-being.
She discovers that it is certainly about more than ‘just a job’ as her boyfriend constantly reminds her, for Lou has discovered she would like her presence to have a positive impact on Will’s life and give him a reason to keep living.
So Lou starts making Will’s happiness her mission in life, researching the sorts of places she can take a disabled person, although it could be all about her own needs as well. She loves the warm and fuzzy feeling she enjoys when helping others who are grateful.
When after weeks of turning up each day Will despite himself begins to smile for the very first time since his accident, everyone is spurred on and heartened at the thought Lou may be making real inroads into Will’s decision.
She is like a breath of fresh air for Will, very different from the ambitious highly educated sophisticated women he has been used to dating in the city and casting off with great regularity as it suits his own purpose.
Lou turns up every day wearing yet another outrageous ‘fashion’ outfit, well at least to his mind, with a focus on fabulous shoes often decked out with glitter and flowers, the whole outfit complimented with quirky jewellery.
She slowly gets under his skin and before he realises it, Will is letting Lou take him outside into the garden where she showcases her ability to chat about anything and everything, whether vitally important or not. Funny though, her chatter is no longer as annoying as he first thought.
Soon he’s taking her out and about in the Castle grounds, riding up its ramparts recklessly, re-living childhood memories and realizing he’s falling in love with this dotty delightful woman who is now so important in his life.
But then he becomes dangerously ill, his constitution not able to cope with him being so active and it is touch and go whether he will live or not as he is rushed to hospital.
This is when Lou really discovers just what his injuries mean for his future. Throughout it all and despite the objections of her boyfriend Lou does not leave Will’s side.
Love now has her firmly in its grip and she has overheard a conversation about his euthanasia decision and so wants to spend us much time as possible with him and change his mind.
Since his accident Will’s friends and colleagues, and most particular his current girlfriend at the time, have been notable by their absence. When his ‘best friend’ and old girlfriend drop by the apartment to tell him they are to be married, their discomfort at being in the presence of a ‘disabled’ man is deeply felt.
It made me remember when my own brother was in a wheel chair for some years having had polio and before finally learning to walk again. Constantly people treated him as if he was dumb.
Like many people who have not had first hand experience of physical disability, they make the fatal mistake of thinking that because someone has lost the use of their limbs that their mind must be affected too.
Treating disabled people just as you would everyone else seems for many impossible, but it is imperative if they are to lead a very real life contributing in community.
Why is it so hard for so many? Is it a lack of ability to imagine being in the same hard place? No one really wants to be completely dependent on others, or to feel as if they are not valued.
Terrible accidents happen every day to someone and without support they cannot hope to keep going forward.
Now thanks to Lou, in Me Before You, Will is looking forward to getting up each day and spending the rest of the time he has left with her.
Will has never been inside one of the village’s small cottages before, so different from his grand large-scale castle home and enjoys the experience when Lou invites him to her house to meet her father Bernard Clark (Brendan Coyle), mother ‘Treena’ (Jenna Coleman) and Grandad (Alan Breck) along with her boyfriend Patrick, for her birthday party.
Sadly her sister Josie (Samantha Spiro) who Lou relies on a great deal for wise observations and advice, is unable to be there,
As they have taken two steps forward and one back together, Will has discovered how Lou as a child was given a pair of ‘bumblebee’ tights for her birthday, loving them to distraction until she grew out of them.
Will produces a pair of black and yellow striped tights for her birthday present and she is overjoyed by his thoughtfulness.
She loves them far more than the silver necklace her boyfriend Patrick gives her bearing of all things, his name! He can’t believe Lou prefers looking after a disabled man than being with him; empathy and understanding real love is not a concept Patrick is able to embrace at all.
The question we are by now all asking is will Lou help William change his mind, or more importantly, will he change it because of his love for her?
We could be encouraged to think so, especially when he asks her to be his date at his former girlfriend’s wedding.
At the reception they dance together, with Lou on Will’s lap in his wheelchair.
How can Lou reconcile Will to the limitations of his wheelchair and the constant pain he lives with daily so they can be together as long as possible?
She persuades the doctors to let Nathan come with her as she takes Will away to a wonderful Island paradise where they bask in the sun in view of its crystal green waters.
The whole visit turns into a disaster when he tells her nothing she can do or say will change what he’s decided.
So she knows she has failed miserably and runs away unable to cope and he tells his parents to let her go.
After moping about in her own misery, she finally realises there must be much more to love and makes a last minute dash to Sweden to be by his side as he ends his life.
Will’s last testament marks a new beginning for Lou who discovers he has left an annuity to help her live her life ‘boldly’ and without the fear he insisted rules her life.
He couldn’t believe anyone could settle for less. This act will extend his reach and influence from beyond the grave and give him satisfaction at his end.
Will’s last words in a letter he leaves for Lou to read while sitting in a Paris café he asked her to visit for him, are meant to let her know that at the end he was sure they were importantly, on the same page.
Love is so often about learning how to respect each other’s choices, as well as learning how to let go when someone you love makes a choice you may not agree with.
So is there a right and wrong in this story?
Me Before You is about pushing the boundaries of the conversations we need to have as a community, about sharing stories about the things that hurt.
Lou has realised though that Will has exercised his right to life, based on the medical knowledge available to him, and so she must support his decision if she truly loves him.
Whatever the arguments associated with the right or wrong of subjects examined in the movie Me Before You, it highlights the fact that we all need to regularly examine what our attitudes towards disability and embracing empathy for others really means.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Brendan Coyle, Stephen Peacocke, Matthew Lewis, Jenna Coleman, Samantha Spiro, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Joanna Lumley
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Jojo Moyes, based on her novel
Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Alison Owen
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: John Wilson
Composer: Craig Armstrong