From Andy Serkis’ production company The Imaginarium, Breathe marks Serkis’ feature directorial debut and, as a romantic tearjerker, is a departure from the usual VFX-heavy fantasy movies we’re familiar with seeing him in.
Written by William Nicholson, Breathe is the remarkable, and moving true story of producer Jonathan Cavendish’s parents Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy) who together battled Robin’s polio, raised their son, and helped bring about a pioneering change in the treatment and care of people afflicted with the disease.
A period piece, both in its 1950s setting, and in the rich caramel hues of its cinematography (Robert Richardson), it opens with old fashioned titles, quaint music, and a picturesque village green of ye olde England: men in white playing cricket, women under sunshades drinking tea. 28-year-old Robin Cavendish meets Diana Blacker and they fall in love at the drop of a straw boater hat. Soon, Robin and Diana are married, pregnant, and travelling in Kenya, living a comfortable and fun existence alongside his tea export business; whilst romantic and sweet, the Kenya scenes are a bit too picture-perfect, and uncomfortably gloss over British colonialism and the arguably blinkered upper middle class, white privilege of the Cavendish’s lives.
However, the story doesn’t linger on the idyllic Kenyan planes for long, because the Cavendish’s travels are brought to a sudden halt when Robin contracts polio and becomes paralysed from the neck down. What seemed like a romantic comedy quickly turns into a bleak narrative, and Robin is tethered to a breathing machine, which is the only thing keeping him alive. He wants to die though, and only with Diana’s persistence and dedication, does he regain his drive for life. Though he was only given a year to live, Robin went on to survive several more decades, escaping the confines of hospitals and living out his years both at home and abroad, amongst friends and family.
It’s a life-affirming story, and all the more moving knowing it’s based on real-life events. Whilst occasionally sickly sweet, the jovial nature of the film is clearly down to the relationship and bond between Robin and Diana, whose humour in dealing with the agonies and triumphs of their situation is remarkable. Diana lives for the moment, forever optimistic, and with admirable resolve. Even with the burden she carries – not just the emotional impact, but the constant care and attention she must provide Robin with, to enable his survival – she continues with positive determination, and Foy’s careful and thoughtful performance hints at a pool of warmth beneath, and plenty of outward love and affection. Robin clearly sees humour in tragedy and his spirited nature infects all those around him with hope and happiness. Portrayed beautifully by Garfield, who spends the majority of the film only moving his lips and eyebrows, it’s an impressive and emotional performance, and shows just how skilled Garfield is as an actor.
Also of note are Diana’s twin brothers Bloggs and David (hilariously played by Tom Hollander), offering up further comedic and slapstick aspects to the film, and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), who collaborates with Robin to construct a mobile wheelchair respirator, which allows Robin, and others stuck with ‘iron lungs’, to be liberated from the incarceration of hospital rooms. It’s this legacy which is the most impressive: through Robin and Teddy’s work, they were able to fundamentally change the lives of many disabled people and polio sufferers. Robin was instrumental in organising the first records of the number of ‘responauts’ in Britain and helping to develop numerous devices to provide independence to paralysed people.
Whilst Breathe doesn’t focus on the darkness of Robin’s experience, or look deeper into what must have been extremely challenging emotional circumstances for him and Diana and their son Jonathan, it’s a heartwarming celebration of not just his life, but the impact of his fight for other disabled people’s inclusion, and is worth seeing both for Garfield’s and Foy’s impressive performances as well as Serkis’ delicate and tender direction.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack