PUBLISHED 22 JULY 2016
DISABILITY, in all its many forms, is finally becoming a part of the mainstream cinematic landscape and contemporary depictions appear to be more understanding and realistic. In a 2011 report by the British Film Institute, which explored how film contributes to British culture, 40% of respondents thought there were too few films featuring disabled people. A couple of years on from this study and representations of disability within films have become more commonplace, with the likes of Oscar-winning THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (James Marsh 2014) and STILL ALICE (Richard Glatzer 2014) providing sensitive and yet realistic representations of characters with disabilities, and simultaneously bringing disability to the attention of the cinema-going public. This would suggest that filmmaking has taken huge leaps forward in being more inclusive of disability issues in on-screen portrayals, something that had previously been considered a marginalised subject. However any suggestion that mainstream depictions of disability are progressing have been crushed by the recent release of controversial romantic drama ME BEFORE YOU (Thea Sharrock 2016).
Set in the historic town of Pembroke, ME BEFORE YOU explores the life of quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who would rather kill himself than continue life disabled. A great emphasis is placed on the loss of his active and adventurous life in comparison to the isolated, sedentary life he now leads following his motorcycle accident. Eccentric, working-class local Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) begins new employment as a carer for Will and aims to reignite his lost love of live in an attempt to get him to change his mind regarding assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide is a controversial subject, not just in relation to cinema, but within wider society. Any film attempting to portray it is going to come under intense scrutiny. ME BEFORE YOU’s representation of assisted suicide indicates an underlying assumption that disability is a fate worse than death. Even if this is intended as Will’s opinion rather than that of the film more broadly, the concern is at the centre of the backlash towards this “disability snuff movie”, as protestors have described it. Assisted suicide is glorified in ME BEFORE YOU. For a film so keen to support Will’s decision and choice to end his life, it so quickly ensures the death is invisible to the audience. As Will lies in bed in a Swiss clinic surrounded by family, the screen swiftly fades to white. Death is shown as a solution to disability, which in turn suggests that disability itself is a problem to be fixed.
We should embrace the fact that storylines regarding disability are gaining more visibility in mainstream culture. ME BEFORE YOU had an opportunity to tackle the stigma associated with disability and assisted suicide, bringing these issues to the forefront of topical conversation. However, while the film does represent a disabled character, there is a real lack of deeper understanding of the disabled experience. The story conveniently dodges the subject of disability, its representation lacking any real gravitas. There is no doubt that ME BEFORE YOU has brought euthanasia and disability to mainstream attention but its shallow misrepresentation is cause for concern.