Breathe is the true story of a man’s quest to manage a cruel and debilitating illness with the help and devotion of his friends and family. It’s the kind of thing that used to be dubbed ‘Oscar bait’ and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it nominated for a gong or two somewhere down the road. It’s also an unusual choice for actor Andy Serkis’s directorial debut (okay, so it’s not really his debut. There’s an animated version of Jungle Book waiting in the wings, its release date pushed back a year because Jon Favreau got there first – but that, as they say, is another story). Breathe is compelling stuff, sensitively directed and beautifully acted by the cast.
The story begins in England in the 1950s, where Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) at a village cricket match and promptly falls head over heels in love with her. Almost within minutes, it seems, the two of them are inseparable and Robin has whisked Diana off to Kenya, where he works as a ‘tea broker.’ (Don’t ask.) It’s all terribly romantic and terribly British and, when Diana announces that she is pregnant, it looks as though their future together is assured. But then, without warning, Robin is struck down by polio and overnight finds himself paralysed, able only to move his facial muscles and unable to breathe without the use of a ventilator. Diana manages to get him back to a hospital in England but Robin quickly sinks into depression. In the 1950s, polio sufferers were expected to live out the rest of their days in hospital, but Diana knows that what Robin wants more than anything else is a chance to escape…
There’s no denying that it’s a remarkable story. Serkis first came to it when he worked with the couple’s son, Jonathan, who is these days a film producer (he’s produced this film, in fact). Garfield does an incredible job, reduced as he is for the most part, to acting only with his face, and Foy is also impressive as the resourceful Diana (though curiously, despite the fact that Robin ages convincingly throughout the film, she seems to look exactly the same in every scene). There’s splendid support from Tom Hollander, in a dual role as Diana’s twin brothers, and from Stephen Mangan as the Doctor who takes up Robin’s cause to help free hundreds of disabled patients from their hospital incarceration. It would take a stern soul indeed not to feel moved to tears at various points in the story and I doubt there’s anyone who won’t experience a genuine thrill of satisfaction when Robin is finally allowed to go home to his wife and child.
If I have a problem with the film, it’s largely due to the trailer. There’s a tendency these days for trailers to show far too much and I feel this is the case with Breathe, where it is essentially a potted version of the entire movie. As a result – accomplished though the film is – there are no real surprises, because I pretty much know exactly what is going to happen. Now, Serkis can hardly be blamed for this… but I really wish that film companies would rein themselves in and leave us a little more to discover for ourselves.
Rant over. Breathe is a charming and affecting film, one that’s well worth seeking out. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, so much the better!) It’s been accused of glossing over some of the more unpleasant details of the illness it deals with, but the scene where the Cavendishes visit a hospital in Germany to see how polio sufferers are treated there doesn’t pull any punches. Sometimes things really do change for the better and Robin Cavendish, who helped affect that change, really does deserve to be recognised for his achievements.