Tuesday 22 December 2020

Movie Review: Breathe (2017)

A biographical drama and romance, Breathe is the remarkable story of Britain's longest surviving polio patient and his wife. The narrative is inspirational but also excessively sentimental.

In England of the late 1950s, jovial, athletic and adventurous Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets and marries Diana Blacker (Claire Foy). She joins him on business trips to Kenya, where in 1959 he contracts polio and is paralyzed from the neck down. Kept alive by a mechanical respirator, Robin is given weeks to live. The already pregnant Diana refuses to give up on him, and after their child Jonathan is born, the family relocates back to England.

Confined to a grim hospital ward, Robin just wants to die. But Diana revives his will to live, and after a year they defy medical advice and leave the hospital. In partnership with inventor and Oxford University professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin helps design and test groundbreaking devices and equipment to improve his quality of life, including a wheelchair equipped with a battery-operated respirator and a van modified to provide mobility. Intent on living as normally as possible, Robin and Diana travel as he advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

Written by William Nicholson and produced by Robin Cavendish's son Jonathan, the directorial debut of Andy Serkis is a labour of love honouring a couple who decided to thrive despite unimaginable hardship. From lyrical scenes of an idyllic love expressed in the African sunset to the grim realities of dealing with near-total paralysis, Breathe is two hours long and slow paced, but always energized by a prevailing can-overcome attitude.

Serkis displays a flair for visual beauty and creates many postcard-pretty scenes, whether in Africa or back at the country estate in England. The film finds an unlikely highlight by the side of a dusty road in Spain, where a potentially catastrophic ventilator failure becomes a moment to savour with the locals rallying to provide moral and musical support. Another searing revelation occurs at a medical conference in Germany, demonstrating the stark contrast between modern technology and unfiltered humanity in treating people with disabilities.

But while Breathe satisfies the senses and stirs the soul, it also approaches saccharine levels of melodrama. Once the Cavendish's settle down in their country home after escaping the hospital, the couple are elevated to saintly do-no-wrong status, almost blissfully cruising above any conflicts. This may be an honest account of two wonderful people, but makes for vanilla cinema. The final chapter in Robin's life is excessively drawn out over the final 30 minutes, complete with greatest hits flashbacks to earlier moments in the film.

Andrew Garfield does his best while mostly confined to laying on his back, acting solely through limited facial expressions and difficult speech. Claire Foy is limited to the familiar stoic-and-resourceful stand-by-your-man role. Hugh Bonneville as the amiably eccentric Teddy Hall is the one prominent supporting cast member, while Tom Hollander plays both of Diana's twin brothers.

A bit old fashioned, definitely affectionate but also sincere, Breathe celebrates one couple's resolve, severely tested but most certainly unbowed.

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