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New Release Review - BREATHE

breathe review
The story of disabled advocate Robin Cavendish.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Andy Serkis

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Diana Rigg

breathe poster


As a cinemagoer, it's difficult not to feel cynical about 'Awards Season', that time of year when a slew of 'inspirational' true stories suspiciously hit our screens. You can't help but question the motivations the filmmakers have in telling these particular tales, and for every Moonlight there are usually a half dozen by the numbers biopics in which famous stars apply fake noses or lose or gain weight to deliver 'brave' performances. By the time Awards Season wraps up in Spring I'm often left with a bitter taste in my mouth, which thankfully I can wash out with the original and interesting movies that begin to hit cinemas once the Oscar buzz has subsided.

There isn't an ounce of cynicism in Andy Serkis's biopic of disabled advocate Robin Cavendish, Breathe; it comes from a place of genuine heart, as Serkis grew up knowing Robin and his wife Diana, and the film is produced by the couple's son Jonathan. It's a loving tribute to two old friends, one which never asks for the audience's sympathy or opts for those easy 'cry now' moments. Unfortunately, it's also a little dull.

breathe

Played by Andrew Garfield, we meet Robin first as a healthy young man enjoying a life of colonial privilege with his new wife Diana (Claire Foy) and their infant son in 1950s Kenya. One day while playing cricket, he collapses, and is rushed to a hospital, where he is diagnosed with Polio. Returning to Britain, Robin is confined to a hospital bed, a breathing apparatus keeping him alive, and told he has no more than a few months to live.

Figuring she can perform the duties of the nurses charged with caring for her husband, Diana convinces Robin to leave the hospital and live at home with her, against the advice of the hospital authorities. Enlisting the aid of his friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville, at his most Bonnevillian), an inventor and Oxford professor, Robin is gifted with a chair equipped with a motorised respirator that allows him to leave his bedroom, and even England after a few years. Believing such a resource should be available to all Polio survivors, Robin becomes a determined advocate for the disabled.

breathe

Perhaps because Breathe is a film made by people close to its subject, it never strays from showing Robin and Diana in anything but a positive light. While it's nice to see a movie that doesn't portray disability as purely misery, Breathe is so candy-coated it almost makes Polio look fun. There's a severe lack of drama here, as thanks to the financial resources available to Robin and Diana, they want for practically nothing (except of course a cure for Polio). The only obstacle Robin ever faces is the power being cut to his motor, and we never see his relationship with Diana ever having any difficult moments. When Robin suggests Diana find a friend with benefits to look after her own physical needs, she merely laughs him off, failing, along with the film, to acknowledge the torment that brought him to make such a suggestion. This could have worked if the film had shown us the mechanics of how Robin and Diana enjoy a healthy sex-life, but then the film is produced by their son, and nobody wants to watch their parents getting jiggy, even if they are played by Garfield and Foy.

There are several elements of Breathe that got under my skin for the wrong reasons. The portrayal of Foy as a saintly figure sets an impossible standard for women to live up to - couldn't we have seen even one moment in which it all gets on top of her and she needs to scream at life's injustice? And then there's the film's libertarian attitude to healthcare, portraying the NHS and other state institutions as run by uncaring automatons while never acknowledging the privilege that comes with Robin and Diana's wealthy position. A more interesting film might focus on the Polio victim who can't afford to leave their hospital bed. On a technical level, casting Tom Hollander as a pair of digitally generated twins is misguided, as it takes you out of the movie every time they appear on screen together.

breathe

For all that, Breathe is rendered watchable by a pair of warm and loveable central performances. Garfield is given the tough task of delivering a performance with limited facial muscles, and his eyes express the joy his character finds in the simple act of living, and indeed breathing. Foy is one of those actors you hear a lot about, but if you're like me and don't watch TV, she's a revelation here, arriving as a newcomer to my eyes and exiting the film as a bona fide movie star.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Breathe is its ending, in which characters conspire to commit an act still deemed illegal in Britain, and most countries. I expected some closing text to explain how the parties involved got away with it, but none arrived. Turns out, this was completely fabricated for the film, which makes you wonder why more dramatic licence wasn't taken for a story that badly needed it.

Breathe is in UK/ROI cinemas October 27th.



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