Noted motion-capture actor Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, “Breathe,” lacked the action and CGI of the blockbuster film franchises like “Star Wars” and “Lord of Rings,” that the English actor has made a career of. Instead, Serkis paints a beautiful portrait of the romance behind the revolutionary device that enabled handicapped patients to escape immobility and “breathe” freely.
Assisted by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson and Academy Award-nominated writer William Nicholson, “Breathe,” a biographical drama, stars Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish, the British advocate for the disabled and Claire Foy as Diana Cavendish, his wife and partner in activism. Garfield stuns the audience yet again in his effortless performance playing a paralyzed man who became the voice of thousands battling polio.
The film begins in the 1950s with a portrayal of the young love shared by Robin Cavendish and Diana Blacker through flirty and playful camera angles. Once married, Robin and Diana have the world at their feet. They travel the world, have a baby on the way, enjoy tea in the garden together every afternoon followed by tennis or cricket.
They seem to live a picture-perfect lifestyle, until one day Robin ignores all the signs of being physically incapable of playing his usual afternoon sport and collapses. The same night, Robin’s friend Colin Campbell immediately rushes him to the hospital where the onset of polio leaves him paralyzed and unable to move, talk and breathe.
Robin is given three months to live once he is diagnosed with polio, but after a year is still alive and returns home from the hospital with the help of his wife and her twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker, both played by Tom Handler. Robin can finally feel the sun’s rays and see the blue skies again, finding purpose in living again. With the help of his mechanic friend Teddy Hall, portrayed by Hugh Bonneville, Robin can leave the confines of his bed and play with his child all thanks to a respirator attached to his wheelchair. The liberating feeling shackles through your spine when Robin can move by his own will for the first time since his diagnosis.
With his newfound ability to live more freely, Diana helps Robin embark on the journey doctors said he would not live to see. Her constant efforts to bash anyone that tells Robin the practicalities of his disease amp up Robin into the confident man that proves them otherwise. Together, the couple disregards doctors’ orders and travels to Spain, Germany and many other countries to advocate for the disabled, with each vibrant color energizing the screen.
However, viewers get to see a sad glimpse of reality when the film’s darkest scene shows Robin proposing the idea of the wheelchair to German hospitals. The scene shows the tragic treatment polio patients dealt with in Germany, where their bodies were kept in isolated rooms apart from other patients. It is a surreal picture: living, breathing, bodies stacked on top of each other in dense metal machinery under white fluorescent lights.
The film is produced by no better man for the job than Robin and Diana’s son himself, Jonathan Cavendish. Jonathan tells the bittersweet tale of his parents as love birds from his point of view. Cavendish sought out to make the film the perfect letter to his parents. His lovely tribute gives the world incredible insight on how families dealt with a life-changing disease that could destroy lives instantly. Andrew Garfield’s struggle as a disabled man might not be quite on the level of Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking in the “Theory of Everything,” but that merely seems to be the point. Sweet violin, a tender embrace and a warm family gathering by a fire in the middle of Spain with laughs and wine is precisely what young Jonathan Cavendish entails his film to be.