At the age of 28, Robert Cavendish was paralysed from the neck down by polio. Given only months to live on a respirator, he beat the odds and became one of the longest living ‘responauts’. Andy Serkis takes on Cavendish’s story with biopic Breathe.
Opening with Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meeting his future wife Diana (Claire Foy), Serkis smartly runs through their courtship and early marriage in a few minutes, trusting that we’ll buy their love for and dedication to each other. It’s all a bit jolly hockey sticks and tea on the lawn, and Robert Richardson’s rich cinematography works with the set design to create a vision of English life dripping with nostalgia and class privilege. But as an opening it establishes its characters well and gets us to where we need to be – Cavendish confined to his hospital bed, immobile and mute. At first, Cavendish seems irretrievably depressed. Unable even to speak and with nothing to live for, he can’t bear to even look at Diana and their baby son.
Mouthing ‘let me die’ to his friends, Cavendish is told that turning off the respirator would lead to a prolonged, agonising death. Diana, however, refuses to give up, and against the advice of the stuffy, stubborn consultant (a rather typecast Jonathan Hyde), begins making preparations to transport her husband home in the knowledge that it may lead to his death. Foy is excellent here, embodying stoic reserve while her love for husband swells just beneath the surface. What follows are a series of incremental improvements to the quality of Cavendish’s life. Beginning with a bell that he can knock with his head to alert Diana, he soon tires of existing in one room. So enlisting the help of his friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) he constructs a mobile respirator that can be transported in an adapted wheelchair.
As Cavendish rediscovers his love of life, holidaying in Africa and hosting Christmas parties, his thoughts return to his similarly-afflicted friends left behind in the hospital ward. In Breathe’s second half, Cavendish finds himself an advocate for severely disabled people, seeking money to develop mobile respirator chairs while addressing European medical luminaries. It’s all a little Inspiring with a capital ‘I’, but his advocacy for a change in the way disability is perceived and managed is nevertheless moving. And the scene where he visits a sterile German facility where patients are stacked like cadavers-in-waiting is truly arresting in its visual starkness.
Anyone remotely familiar with biopic cinema will be able to spot the shape and direction of Breathe’s story a mile off. It’s classic Sunday afternoon matinee fare, replete with a worthy, Oscar-baiting central performance and a life-affirming, decade-spanning narrative. But adherence to formula need not spoil the enjoyment of a well-spun tale – Serkis’ debut film may be predictable, but it is nothing if not well told.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell