Film review by Jason Day of Breathe, starring Andrew Garfield as real life polio survivor Robin Cavendish and the breakthroughs in palliative care made by him and his wife Diane (Claire Foy). Directed by Andy Serkis.
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Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) lives a charmed life. A tea broker in sunny Kenya, he has a beautiful, society wife (Claire Foy), friends who love him and is expecting his first child. Then, polio leaves him paralysed, unable to speak and reliant on a ventilator for the very breath of life. Depressed, he asks to be allowed to die but his wife makes him fight to live and see their son grow up.
Review, by Jason Day
I’m used to reviewing what I have termed ‘blub cinema’, movies designed to jerk a few tears, having sat through Lion, The Light Between Oceans, A Monster Calls etc over the past year.
So this based-on-actual-events drama, with terminal illness, kids, loving wives and perpetually sunny rural English locations thrown in to the mix was bound to have me wailing in my cinema seat.
I was prepared for it this time. After all, a good cinematic offence is a good emotional defence.
Not so with Breathe, which is commendably stoic throughout most of its duration. There are no cheap tear-duct tugging techniques employed here.
Focusing as he does on Cavendish’s eminently practical and resourceful wife (a superb performance from Foy, Anne Boleyn in TV’s Wolf Hall), first-time director Serkis (yes, Gollum and King Kong) keeps the waterworks largely at bay.
Apart from genuinely moving moments at the beginning and end of this film, he keeps his attention wisely on the evolutions, adaptations and innovations of the Cavendish family that in time benefit Robin and thousands of others throughout the world. These people are positive pioneers, not disabled and defeated.
Serkis chooses to open his film in a lyrical way as Robin pootles through a lovingly photographed little England, music swooning through the air. It feels like a British La La Land (2016) is about to start.
Not that we have time to dwell as Serkis swiftly whisks us through the next few month’s of Robin’s life.
In quick succession, we cover his meeting with, courtship of and marriage to Diane, their pregnancy and then the man is bathed in ice and has a tracheotomy as polio robs him of movement.
This is indicated through the subtleties of melodrama. Tragedy is in the offing as Robin is soundly thrashed at a tennis match in Kenya, a game he usually wins to a friend who cannot adequately wield a racquet.
Despite settling for the high-life in East Africa, our married couple are part of their own, Not-So-Happy-Valley set.
As if the tragedy of sudden paralysis wasn’t enough, the Cavendish’s face an uphill struggle with the medical establishment of the day. Decades before the General Medical Council’s core ethical guidance for doctors Good Medical Practice espoused a business-like, partnership working between patient and practitioner, doctors were far more brusque and paternalistic.
There is some clever dialogue here as Robin’s specialist, played with the usual imperiousness by Jonathan Hyde, talks over him in the first person possessive (“our windpipe”), caring nothing for how Robin feels and sharing his plight amongst the health team.
Hyde asks, without waiting for an answer, “how are we”? Diane responds for Robin and herself: “we want to die”.
The goodly doctor walks on to the next patient he will ignore the feelings of.
Back to me previous point about the sense of joie de vivre and problem solving that this film concentrates on, as it isn’t all medical maltreatment.
Serkis hones in on the comedic highpoint in the Cavendish’s lives. They push the boat out with a holiday in Spain that goes wrong when the ventilator’s motor explodes. It isn’t often in a film that laughs can be wrung out of a wife having to manually pump air into her husband with bellows by a dusty lay-by.
But laughs there are as the local community, recognising Diane’s plight, chip-in until Hugh Bonneville’s trusted inventor can get on a plane from England to rescue them.
They establish a make-shift community to party with the Cavendish’s in time honoured Spanish style, wine, tapas lunches, flamenco lessons and all.
In Germany during a conference on disabled patient care, the seemingly disembodied heads of other polio patients, encased in iron lungs, follow Robin, free in his wheelchair, as he is pushed past them. It’s difficult to tell whether the patients are horrified or envious.
The real-life Jonathan Cavendish went on to become a film producer. In fact, he is the sole producer of this film.
For more, see the trailer on the official site.
Cast & credits
Director: Andy Serkis. (118 mins). Imaginarium Productions. 12a
Producer: Jonathan Cavendish,
Writer: Daniel Nicholson.
Camera: Robert Richardson.
Music: Nitin Sawhney.
Sets: James Merifield.
Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Andrew Mangan, Edward Speleers, Hugh Bonneville, David Wilmot, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, Dean Charles Chapman.