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film review

Emilia Clarke, left, and Sam Claflin in a scene from Me Before You.

Lou (Emilia Clarke) enters the sleek, newly converted wing of an English castle where she will begin her first day as a caregiver to a man living with a disability (Sam "Finnick from The Hunger Games" Claflin as Will). She stops abruptly. Her toothy smile collapses on her face and her widening eyes betray terror. Just before meeting Will – an angry quadriplegic living with his upper-class parents in a small British town – Lou spies the toilet. It has been adapted to accommodate Will with a tall plastic back and armrests. Gape-mouthed and horrified at the thought of a disabled man needing to poop: This is the heroine of Thea Sharrock's schmaltzy and offensive Me Before You (unfortunately opening this Friday).

This film cost $20-million to make and, at its heart, is a glossy, live-action Beauty and the Beast, with a quadriplegic in the role of non-human animal. The film is adapted from Jojo Moyes's 2012 bestselling "romance" novel and goes like this: Will, who had been living a posh life in London stripping assets for a living and chasing adrenalin highs, gets in an accident and would rather die than live in the new iteration of his body.

Along comes bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Lou, who has no experience of caregiving, but is a chipper antidote to Will's misery. He treats her like she's an idiot and makes fun of her quirky fashion sense, all of which the film wants to suggest is because his disability makes him a cantankerous grump. It's more likely that his misogyny is a product of being a rich narcissist left wanting for nothing, but hey, isn't love strange?

There are so few empathetic depictions onscreen of people whose bodies are different than what we call normal. This film is a squandered chance to illuminate the ways in which bodies function differently but feelings like ardour and lust are universal. Instead, Me Before You is clearly disgusted by the needs of the quadriplegic body and Will's disability is aestheticized. It is as though the film itself is swaddled in soft cashmere.

Through dialogue we hear that Will's pain and suffering is gruesome, so debilitating that questions of suicide and assisted dying lie not far outside of the shot. And yet, we see none of this "ugly" stuff. Will's insistence that his is not really a life worth living reads, then, as a cold and insidious insistence that in fact it is the disabled life that is not worth living.

By contrast, we can look to Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel A Little Life for a complex and affecting narrative of living with and through pain. Without shirking contentious questions of suicide and trauma, it offers a better love story, too.

Clarke – already familiar to many as Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones – does her best to lift up the role of Lou. She's got the comedic timing of a young Bridget Jones, and there is something soothing in her lack of ambition. She's working this caregiving job to support her underemployed family and is happy enough to do so, but Will insists that Lou must live more boldly. Despite the fact that Lou is content with her life and her close-knit family bonds, Will is certain that she is squandering her potential. This is where the film's commentary on class divisions in England rears its righteous head and implies that Will's family is wealthy not because of any privilege, but rather because they worked hard, fuelled by a hungry ambition that Lou's family just can't muster.

Me Before You builds its melodrama so intensely that the film's end is almost sure to make you cry. But don't let that trick you into thinking that the movie is good simply because it is affecting: that's precisely the function of melodrama. And so, despite its $20-million budget, Me Before You is cheap; and just like a person who has more money than he knows what to do with, this film equates wealth with value and vulnerability with death.