2017, PG-13, 117 min. Directed by Andy Serkis. Starring Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, David Wilmot, Penny Downie, Jonathan Hyde.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Oct. 20, 2017
Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe is a biopic on Robin Cavendish, a British responaut, medical aid pioneer, and advocate for the disabled. In the mid-Fifties, Cavendish, played by a game Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man), was paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio at age 28. (Irreversible paralysis caused by polio is considered rare, occurring in about 0.5% of cases.) He was given just a few months to live and banished to some crummy hospital, because in those days it was downright ghastly for a “cripple” to be out in the world. To the absolute horror of the head doctor/warden (a perfectly perturbed Hyde), Cavendish’s wife Diana (Foy) refuses to let him rot and breaks him right out of there (because love will set you free! … or something like that).
The film is completely enchanted by the couple’s marriage, which is wholly unburdened by any harsh words or significant fights (Diana stomps off once and screams into a field, while the camera stays fixed on Robin and their son – the focus being the men’s reactions rather than the woman’s pain). It’s a rather hunky-dory, dainty depiction of what can’t have been an easy situation (but for real, guys, all you need is love). Garfield appears to relish the challenge of playing the part using only his face; he maintains a charming persona via frisky eyebrows and a “say cheese” grin. He conveys despair once or twice, but from the moment he leaves the hospital his life is a thrill ride (Cavendish lived to be 64) of creating more and more elaborate means of getting around, with the help of Hugh Bonneville’s Dr. Teddy Hall, who invented a wheelchair with a built-in respirator. As for the “advocacy” bit, Robin visits a German facility where they house paralyzed patients like bodies in a morgue (a jarring scene) and then attends a convention where he gives one of those moving, defiant speeches that is typical to films of this genre.
It’s obvious that the filmmakers want audiences to understand that there is no way Robin could have survived without Diana (see tagline: “With her love, he lived”). She is exalted as a perfect Madonna savior; it’s even made clear that she never remarried. It’s important to note that Breathe was produced by the Cavendishes’ son Jonathan, who co-owns a production company with Serkis. I suppose not everyone sees their parents for the flawed humans that they are, but in this case, things would be a lot more interesting if they did.