Film Review: Breathe

Breathe is a cautious and well-intentioned factual drama which was always going to be a little overly respectful and at times sentimental, but it hardly matters as this is a story that should be told.

Director Andy Serkis worked with producer Jonathan Cavendish, who wanted to tell the story of his parents, Robin and Diana, as well as the people who loved them. It looks like the much-loved character actor-turned-debut director got all his starry mates to appear too and they’re all pretty splendid.

Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is shown somewhere in the 1950s as a young man falling for Diana (Claire Foy), and a quick montage has them madly in love, ready to marry and expecting a baby before the opening credits have even properly finished. An adventurous pair with lots of friends, they’re planning a life together when Robin is stricken by polio at the age of 28 and paralysed from the neck down for life. As this is the 1950s, the whole attitude to people with disabilities was different to now.

Consigned to a ward of a hospital, connected to a respirator and overseen by stern Dr. Entwistle (Jonathan Hyde), Robin is expected to not live for long and succumbs to depression for a long period, pushing away Diana and her twin brothers Bloggs and David (both played via excellent but subtle tricks and FX by Tom Hollander). He also goes a bit Breaking The Waves-like at one point and suggests that Diana take a lover, but she’s not having any of that. With his permission and full knowledge of the risks, she moves Robin to a new country house where he lives happily with his family (including young Jonathan, who would grow up to, of course, help produce this movie).

When they decide that Robin should get outside they contact their old boffin mate Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to design a wheelchair fitted with a respirator, and he winds up revolutionising the whole field of disabled care. As the years go by, they travel (rather perilously) to Spain and a German disability conference in the 1970s where, outrageously, there are no disabled people in attendance. That’s because many are shown to be virtual prisoners in a now-shocking sequence where Robin moves in his ‘Cavendish wheelchair’ beneath a veritable wall of iron lung patients, and they look down enviously.

With fine work from Garfield and Foy, nice support from Stephen Mangan (better-known as a comedy actor), Diana Rigg and others, a somewhat wobbly aspect in its depiction of the passage of time and lots of top-shelf English pluck, this was nevertheless always going to feel a little contrived given that producer Jonathan wanted to make a movie about his parents and therefore put them high on pedestals.

Yet they probably belonged there, as the two of them changed the whole discussion surrounding disabled people, in the sense that they can decide what they want and are allowed to make decisions for themselves. Doctors can suggest and advise, but the rest is now up to them, and about time too.

Rated M. Breathe is in cinemas now.

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