Director: Andy Serkis
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Dean-Charles Chapman, Miranda Raison, Stephen Mangan, Jonathan Hyde, Amit Shah, Diana Rigg
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 10/13/17 (limited); 10/20/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 19, 2017
In his directorial debut, Andy Serkis presents us with a lush tale of romance against the country roads and estates of England, before traveling to the plains of Kenya—all of it shot in a super-wide format. The expectation is that Breathe will mimic the look and tone of the epic love stories from the past, from the wide shots of the British countryside to a medium shot of the silhouettes of the romantic leads dancing against a burning African sunset. What we soon learn, though, is that Serkis is working in something akin to shorthand, showing us the depth of passion between two people by presenting it in the mode of an old-fashioned romance. We have to comprehend it—and quickly—because the life story of Robin Cavendish takes a bleak turn shortly after his marriage.
His is a name that likely isn't known to too many, and the film, above all else, lets us know what a shame that is (Obviously, the film, produced by Cavendish's son Jonathan, will get his name known more). His story involves a deeply felt love story, yes, but it's also a tale of exceptional strength, clever ingenuity, and tireless advocacy.
Cavendish, who contracted polio in 1958 at the age of 28, was supposed to live out the rest of his relatively short life in a hospital, or at least that was the medical thinking and procedure of the time. The disease paralyzed him without warning, leaving him incapable of moving—except for his face and a little motion of his head—or of breathing on his own. His condition confined him to a respirator, meaning that, based on the technology available at the time, he had to be close to an electrical outlet. Some routine procedures, such cleaning the tracheostomy tube, required regular attention. He ended up living another 36 years, traveling across Europe and to the United States, and helping to pioneer technology that would allow people living with severe disabilities to live lives beyond hospital wards.
It's one of those inspirational stories, of course, but Serkis doesn't present it with the kind of phony sentimentality that one might expect from the phrase "inspirational story." It's as much about the details of living with and caring for someone with a disability as it is about overcoming such limitations. There's a lot of strength and courage on display, but from the perspective of these characters, those qualities are not as important as the simple desire to live to the best of one's ability. The film doesn't present Cavendish as a hero, although it's undeniable that he is in a few respects. He's simply a man, surrounded by a group of good-hearted and loving people, who does not want to spend the rest of his life in the prison of a hospital or a bed at home.
Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy) are the married couple, who meet at a cricket match at a country estate, go through a courtship, and honeymoon in Kenya. That's where Robin contracts polio, leading to him being returned to England, where, stuck in a hospital bed, he is ready to die. Diana, who gives birth to their son shortly after returning home, helps Robin out of his depression, learning that he wants to leave the hospital. Despite the warnings of the medical staff, Diana buys a new home and, with the help of her family (Tom Hollander plays both of her twin brothers) and friends, transports her husband there.
This is more than Robin expected, but it still isn't enough. His friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), a science professor and amateur engineer, develops a system that allows him to ring a bell with the limited motion of his head. Soon, the two work together to design a wheelchair that will allow Robin to leave his bed—one that holds a respirator powered by a battery.
William Nicholson's screenplay is a biography, but it's less concerned with big events and more invested in the day-to-day details of Robin and his family's life. This is right, since the big moments here are founded upon what would seem routine or inconsequential to someone without Robin's disability. It's in Robin's first night home from the hospital, when Diana is able to lie next to her husband in bed. It's in going outside with his son or taking a family vacation in Spain, where the family van breaks down, leading to an impromptu, days-long party on the side of the road with people from a nearby village. As trite as it may sound, the film serves as a celebration of the little things, which are made more difficult by Robin's condition but seem exponentially more rewarding.
The later parts of the film go through Robin and Teddy's attempts to seek funding for more wheelchairs, so that others can have a similar quality of life. They ultimately team up with Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan), who mourns the way that people with severe disabilities are treated (One hospital in Germany has rows and columns of patients trapped in iron lungs within the walls of a sterile room, with only their heads sticking out and mirrors allowing them to see only a reflection of the isolated world). There's a big speech at a conference, but it's telling that Serkis' camera remains fixed on Diana's reaction as much as, if not more than, Robin's moment in the spotlight.
Breathe is an inspirational story, told with a fine attention to the details and these characters. The film serves a reminder of how far we've come in technology and our outlook on those with disabilities, and it's worthwhile, simply for shining a light on a figure whose impact in those regards hasn't been appropriately noted.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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