The story of Robin Cavendish, who at the age of 28 was struck down by polio and paralysed from the neck down, is given a spirited if somewhat conservative rendering in Breathe, the directorial debut of Andy Serkis.
This was England in the 1950s and such a condition meant that Cavendish (embodied here to quietly devastating effect by Andrew Garfield) was predicted to live no longer than three months and had no alternative but to spend the rest of that short sentence in hospital, hooked to a respirator. However, he and his devoted wife, Diana (Claire Foy) didn’t accept such a fate. Diana insisted on taking Robin home and looking after him herself.
From here, with the help of friends, they constructed their own version of a wheelchair and travelled overseas, with the sole purpose of improving Cavendish’s quality of life and others like him.
Their travels took them, among other places, to Germany where we witness a truly shocking hospital scene. The couple had heard that Germany were leading the way in caring for polio patients, but what they saw at first resembled a morgue. The patients were all but engulfed in life support units stacked on top of each other. All we see of the patients are their heads sticking out of what looks like massive wall units.
While this scene, and the film in general, may sound depressing, this is in fact a life affirming account of one man’s will to make a difference, and a portrayal of an inspiring, loving relationship between two people. It also delivers its positive message with a very distinctive British sense of humour.
There will be inevitable comparisons to The Theory of Everything, but while that film was about the iconic genius that is Stephen Hawking, this is the story of an ordinary man who became a pioneering advocate for the disabled. This was indeed the beginnings of humanising and dignifying of people with disabilities.
One thing Breathe shares with The Theory of Everything is that it features two extraordinary performances. Garfield, pretty much acting from the neck up only, gives one of his strongest performances in an already exceptional career, and Foy is a true tour de force as his supportive wife.
Serkis, known primarily as a motion capture performance specialist, having played everything from Gollum to King Kong to the lead in the Planet of the Apes films, has unsurprisingly garnered great performances from a first rate cast.
His direction and William Nicholson’s script never really plum the dark depths of the subject, possibly because Cavendish’s own son Jonathan is the film’s producer, so this is very much a loving homage to his parents.
The weakest link though is the score, by world music exponent Nitin Sawhney, which starts off twee before lathering up into a saccharine froth towards the film’s climax.
Nevertheless, this is ultimately an emotionally rewarding film which should find an appreciative, teary-eyed audience.
Breathe is screening at the Cunard British Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee