Me Before You, based on a bestselling novel of the same name, is the story of a young woman who finds her worth in caring for a man. Louisa (Emilia Clarke) is a very ordinary girl living in a small English town, hoping to find work to keep supporting her family. She finds gainful employment as a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a young man confined to a wheelchair due to an accident two years prior. Will's condition has made him disagreeable, and he takes put his frustrations on everyone around him, including Louisa. Louisa struggles to deal with him, but sticks to it in the name to keeping her family afloat. She dedicates herself to making him feel better, and in spite of everything she kind of succeeds. But his condition looms over everything, and Louisa soon finds that her cheery disposition can't quite cure everything.
The movie seems to hold the position that in spite of her many merits, Louisa is actually unremarkable. She is made remarkable by her relationship with this quadriplegic man, her caring for him giving her life new value and meaning. "You were useless before you met him,” one character opines late in the movie. This is laughed off as a joke, but this seems to be at the core of this story, in which the ordinary and decent is made out to be something laughable.
The film then takes the horribly familiar narrative structure of a sweet, poor girl falling in love with a rich jerk. He treats her badly, but she continues to be nice to him. Eventually, she wins him over, because she's such a caring, devoted soul, putting everything in her life on hold to make this one person feel better. Right up to the very end, the main character is being ridiculed for her strange way of dress and her apparent clumsiness. In return, she is able to use his family's considerable resources to expand her horizons. She goes to the symphony. She flies on a private jet to an island resort, where she tends to her master in an idyllic paradise setting.
If this is fantasy, then it is a regressive one. Louisa is not an equal. She is barely a character. She is a cipher coated in quirky wardrobe, displaying little to no agency as she gives all of herself to this one guy that actually treats her pretty badly. The movie's idea of her meeting her potential mostly involves having the money to go on expensive trips. The movie is uncomfortably classist, basically ridiculing the poor for not having access to culture and being unable to go on trips to Paris. The story goes into some intriguing territory by the end, but it's all predicated on this horribly unbalanced romance between woefully underdeveloped characters. Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin have a few nice moments with each other, but neither can quite turn these ciphers into genuine people.
It is that one line of dialogue that sticks out of Me Before You. "You were useless before you met him." Plenty of romantic films seem to imply that, its female characters incomplete until they have earned the love of a good man. This movie says it outright, and the characters laugh it off, seemingly agreeing with the sentiment. Whatever else this film accomplishes, it lies under the shadow of those horribly regressive ideas. There is sweetness in here, but it exists to serve a broken fantasy of a woman subservient to the needs of a man, her pleasure coming from the use of his great fortune. Surely we can do better than that.