Monday, 11 July 2016

Me Before You In The Dignitas Queue

 A Series of Unfortunate Events

Well I think it's safe to say that the UK has had an eventful few weeks since my last blog entry! Chris Evans was told to leave quit Top Gear, the England football team did their usual tournament self-destruction and, in a smaller matter, the UK took it upon themselves to leave Europe (the Union not the continent!); dividing the country, sending every major political party into chaos and pulling the pin on a grenade that threatens to plunge us all into some kind of biblical armageddon! Online campaigns have been launched and protests have taken place in the capital as the disabled seek refuge indoors for fear of their chairs or crutches being used as missiles aimed at Boris and Nigel, who after spearheading the leave campaign promptly decided to bugger off! Panic has swept social media as the well-informed and uninformed alike thrust their views and opinions down the throats of all those who will listen, and god help you if you dared voice a different opinion to theirs!
But I'm not here to talk about politics or the referendum fallout, this is a disability blog dammit! And although there could indeed be disability related consequences to it all, the truth is that it will be years before the true ramifications are known, be they positive, negative or most likely, a combination of both. No, I'm here to talk about an entirely different but equally divisive event that angered many people and had whole swathes of the disabled community kicking-off, metaphorically speaking. That event being the 110 minute Dignitas promotional video: Me Before You!

In a Nutshell (Spoiler Alert)

Anyone who has read my "Love Is In The Chair" blog entry will know that I'm pretty much allergic to the OTT, super-cheesy, ultra-weepy method of portraying love and matters of the heart, with Nicholas Sparks being the main offender. And be under no illusion dear reader, this is Nicholas Sparks in everything but name, oozing sentimentality at every possible moment. However, where there would normally be a rugged badboy with a dark past or an emotionally damaged dreamboat for the (pure-as-the-driven-snow) girl to 'heal' with the power of love, in this film there's a bitter quadriplegic with a death wish! But don't worry girls, he's still total dreamy, has a British accent and is loaded with cash, phew!

The suicidal stud in question, Will, was paralysed from the neck down after being hit by a motorbike two years earlier and has since emotionally shut down, shunning his friends, losing his girlfriend and giving up his lucrative banking career, because if there's one thing we know about disabled people it's that it's impossible for them to have successful careers, no matter how sharp their minds may be...

Stephen who?! Never heard of him!
Anyway, he gets a new caregiver in the form of Louisa, a beautiful, upbeat, quirky and entirely fictional girl who lives with her family, struggles for money and goes out with Neville from Harry Potter! Will is resistant to her eternal cheeriness at first but predictably he begins to warm to her until they become friends, fall in love and live happily ever after, having several children and with Will becoming a successful mouth painter. He accepts his injury and comes to realise that the key to happiness does not solely reside in having a fully functioning body, but instead lies in surrounding oneself with family, friends and positivity, overcoming life's challenges in the process.

Except that doesn't happen.

Yes, Will and Louisa fall in love and she encourages him to embrace life, taking him on adventures at home and abroad and making it clear that she isn't phased by his disability and loves him for what's inside his wallet. Will admits to having led a shallow life before his injury and only now sees past the vain, materialistic surface he was previously trapped behind. But unconditional love, support and companionship are simply not enough for this guy, it's a 'normal' life or no life! So he follows through with his plan of going to Switzerland for assisted suicide, emotionally crushing Louisa and his parents, the end. Seriously, that's it. Oh but on the plus side, he does leave Louisa a nice chunk of inheritance, so...all's well that ends well?!

The Backlash

The novel of the same name, on which the film is based, came out in 2012 and, although ending identically to the film, seems largely to have gone under the radar as far as controversy is concerned. This is likely because very rarely does the release of a novel garner as much publicity as the release of a movie, especially when it has two recognisable stars in the lead roles. But I very much doubt anyone involved in the film realised quite how much publicity it would receive, and not for the quality of acting or depth of story. No, as the cast and crew were soon to find out: Hell hath no fury like a wheelchair user scorned!

So just be told will you!
As the film neared its release, more and more people became aware of it, the subject it was dealing with and it's controversial ending. By the time it premiered, the roaring debate had reached fever pitch. Disabled rights groups such as Not Dead Yet staged protests at the film's premiere, The Telegraph wrote about a variety of differing viewpoints and 11-year-old wheelchair athlete Ella French penned an extremely acerbic and witty open-letter entitled, Dear Hollywood, Why Do You Want Me Dead? A girl after my own heart!

Me Before You: Not Dead Yet - A Zombie Love Story!
The film's director, Thea Sharrock, defended the film, calling its ending "brave" and "more interesting". Whereas I may not necessarily agree with this viewpoint, I can't help but feel slightly sorry for her as she battles through the shitstorm she's found herself in the eye of. In essence all she did was make a faithful adaptation of a book. Although in one interview she uses the unfortunate phrase, "my nephew is in a wheelchair", which I can't help but find synonymous with an accused homophobe defending themselves with the classic, "I've got friends who are gay!"

My Two Cents

In all honesty, I wasn't hugely offended by Me Before You. This is largely down to the fact that I'm a heartless bastard pretty thick skinned and laid back about life so it takes a hell of an effort for anything to genuinely offend or upset me. But I can understand why others would take offence at the portrayal and message it puts across. It's a fairly shallow portrayal of life with a disability, with many of the positives and negatives either being negated completely or paid basic lip service to. It completely ignores the whole rigmarole of getting up and ready on a morning, and the whole story goes by without a single faceplant or mention of a catheter; although it does briefly address some of the more serious potential aspects of high level quadriplegia, such as septicemia, autonomic dysreflexia and pneumonia. And I couldn't help but smile at the scene when Will's casters get stuck in a muddy patch of a field and it takes three people to haul him out. We've all been there!

I think the most important thing to take into account is that this is not meant to be an informative documentary about life in a wheelchair and the supposed inner turmoil of those who occupy them. This is a trite piece of romantic fiction, a work of tragedy designed to pull on the heart strings of its audience, leaving them emotionally distraught and with completely unrealistic expectations of love. And in that basic aspect it succeeds. Hell, on occasion even I could feel my stony heart strings being unexpectedly plucked in sadistic fashion.

But in the grand scheme of things, who really cares about what a fictional character in a story chooses to do with their life?! Nobody should be watching these films for valuable pointers or life lessons and nobody of sane mind will come out of this film thinking that the characters are in any way a realistic portrayal of actual human beings. This is Hollywood, where for decades men have been stereotyped as tough action heroes, women as damsels in distress; Christian Bale can play an Egyptian, Jonny Depp can play a Native American and John Wayne can play Genghis Khan!

If you're still concerned about the negative impact of films like Me Before You then my advice would be simple: prove them wrong. Go out there, be successful, go travelling, have a family, seize every moment, live your life the way you want it and be the example and role model that others take inspiration from! There are so many disability aids suppliers, organisations and trusts out there whose main purpose is to enable people to live their lives to the fullest. In less than two months the Rio Paralympics will begin and with it, a fortnight's solid, televised coverage showing exactly what people with disabilities are capable of!

And come the end of the year, what do you think will leave the lasting mark and legacy going forward: a 110 minute work of fiction, or a 2 week global event, starring real people, achieving real feats of excellence?


P.S. If you're interested in watching a genuinely moving and compelling tale about a non-suicidal quadriplegic that's actually based on a true story, then I would recommend checking out the 2011 French film Intouchables aka Untouchable.

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