BREATHE. UK, 2017, 118 minutes, Colour. Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Ed Speelers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, Penny Downie, Miranda Raison, Camilla Rutherford. Directed by Andy Serkis.
Breathe is a fine British film, based on the true story of Robin Cavendish, a tea-broker working in Kenya in the late 1950s, enterprising, charming, seen at first as a cricket match, the keen sportsman. He suddenly collapses and is diagnosed with polio, needing a ventilator to breathe, paralysed from the neck down.
There have been many films with health subjects, fighting against adversity, overcoming adversity – films like Me Before You.
One of the problems film reviewers have with films like this is that they are considered “worthy”, a word which is not always complementary. It often implies that this is the kind of film better made for television and the television audience at home, that this is a kind of film that could be labelled as sentimental. (But this reviewer always likes the quotation from W.Somerset Maugham that “sentimentality is only the sentiment you disapprove of”!).
And this become something of a problem with British films compared with American films. It is a contrast between films made with a stiff upper lip and films made with heart on sleeve.
So the question arises, especially with Breathe.
By way of review, it can be said that this is a moving film, in fact produced by Robin’s son, Jonathan Cavendish as tribute to his parents. Andrew Garfield embodies Robin Cavendish, lively before the polio, initially despairing but continually moving ahead in great hope for 34 years before his death in the 1990s. Garfield is limited in his performance by having to rely on words and the use of his eyes, his mouth, raising his eyebrows, otherwise paralysed. And he is supported well by Claire Foy as Diana, his wife, who urged him to live and who was with him, supporting his zest for life, with the experiments for coping with communication, for a chair with a ventilator in it, designed by Ted Hall (Hugh Bonneville), and the work promoted by Dr Clement Aitken on behalf of disabled people (Stephen Mangan).
For Andrew Garfield’s performance, the dialogue and its expression has to be conveyed by tone of voice, pauses and rhythms, smiles, eyes and eyebrows raised. This is the case even in the significant sequence where he goes to Germany, sees disabled people in an ultra-clean and scrubbed mortuary -like display, the disabled in layers, heads out, mirrors in front of them, almost imprisoned in a mausoleum. Cavendish gives an impassioned speech, an emotional thinking man’s speech.
This can also be seen in a very brief sequence where Dr Aitken and Robin Cavendish go to appeal to a philanthropist for funds for more chairs with ventilators. The philanthropist is played by Diana Rigg. The sequence is clear, clipped, successful. No mucking about with sentimentality here!
The emotional demand on the audience is initial disbelief that such a collapse could happen, that Cavendish would prefer to die. However, his wife is a strong and committed woman, arranging for him to be surreptitiously released from hospital, start to enjoy life at home, find different ways in which he could be comfortable and safe. This leads to his active intervention in improving conditions for the disabled, the chairs with ventilators, a plane flight – and even being stranded for 36 hours in Spain after an accident, lots of people gathering joyfully, the local priest giving them all a blessing and that God’s sometimes seemingly harsh jokes bring people together in celebration.
By the end, Robin Cavendish had achieved a great deal – and there is a final challenge for the audience to reflect on issues of assisted suicide, the choice of the person concerned, the impact on the family. This film portrays what actually happened and so is a contribution to the moral debate.
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.