When Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is struck with Polio at the young age of twenty-eight after coming back from Africa, he is confined to a hospital bed and given months to say his goodbyes to his loved ones. With the help of his brothers-in-law Bloggs and David Blacker (both Tom Hollander) and the inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) as well as their lifelong friend Colin Campbell (Edward Speleers), Robin and Diana Cavendish (Claire Foy) dare to escape the ward to look for a full and fulfilled life together which includes raising their son, travelling the world and helping people like Robin achieve freedom, much in the same way Teddy Hall’s genius helped Robin achieve his.
True stories or biopics have a tendency to be badged “Oscar-bait”, more so when their lead character has a life-threatening disease or illness that they must overcome. Still Alice and The Theory of Everything are two of the most recent ones I can think of. However, Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe is a love story first and a “fighting sickness story” second. This is a tale of how Robin and Diana Cavendish’s love for each other happened to change the world. Produced by their son Jonathan Cavendish (played as a young man by Dean Charles Chapman) and written by William Nicholson (Gladiator), Breathe blasts away the sad aura because Robin chose to live a life.
As directorial debuts go, this is a great film and this success only has me that much more pumped for Jungle Book (2018), also directed by Serkis. However, just because this is a period drama, that doesn’t mean that performance capture is off the table. Tom Hollander plays Bloggs and David Blacker. And that’s as far as that technology goes, unlike Andy Serkis’ previous projects, which includes the recent Apes Trilogy where he played Caesar. Watching this at my local Cineworld as part of BFI’s London Film Festival, I was privy to interviews with the cast, finding out that Serkis isn’t new to disability. His sister has multiple sclerosis and his mother taught disabled children.
I feel this is personal to Serkis as well as producer Jonathan Cavendish, and therefore, Serkis never patronises disability. He shows that just because a man like Robin (Garfield) or anybody is physically confined, that doesn’t make them any less of a human being. Breathe shows that disabled people can still live a life. Back in the mid-twentieth century, the disabled population of the world were dealt with a lot like how Britain deals anything it doesn’t like. “If we can’t see them, they don’t exist”. Hence why people like Robin were ferried into secluded hospitals away from society and the rest of the civilised world, as shown when Robin and co go to a conference in Germany.
After Silence and Hacksaw Ridge (UK release), this is the third Oscar-worthy performance I’ve seen this year from Andrew Garfield. With Claire Foy (The Crown) as his wife Diana, they are truly extraordinary. Starting the film, I found there wasn’t really anything special about Robin and Diana. After Indian independence in 1947, this film is set when Britain is losing its grip on the world. However, from loving cricket to playing tennis with the ambassador and his wife in Kenya to contracting polio, things escalate quickly. Robin and Diana Cavendish go from being on top of the world to watching life flash before your eyes as Robin now needs a respirator to breathe for him.
Robin is suicidal. He wants to die but Diana won’t let him. “When I first became paralysed I wanted to die” he says. But Diana, and their friends, including inventor Teddy Hall made it possible for Robin to live again. “My wife told me I had to live” he continues. Given three months to live, he grows as an individual and continues to defy the expectations of his doctors time and time again. Lest us not forget Robin arriving back at the ward in what we now know as a wheelchair. “You owe me five pounds” says Robin to his friend who had bet him he wouldn’t live outside the hospital. It’s these comedic moments that put a smile on my face in a film where one would expect to be sad.
Breathe is an over of two single runs, three sixes and a four. Cricket metaphors and excellent performances aside, cases like Robin’s inspired change in disability rights around the world. People like Robin were packed in boxes like sardines, much akin to that German laboratory and it’s good to contrast what was against what is and how humanity and society aren’t always in tandem.