Breathe movie review: 'Andrew Garfield is compelling as a pioneering polio sufferer'
Breathe (12A, 117mins)
I knew nothing much about Breathe before I started watching it and the opening scenes made me suspect I was about to endure a sickening bout of saccharine British Empire nostalgia. But Andy Serkis' directorial debut is much more substantial than that, telling the moving story of an unlikely pioneer.
When we first meet Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), he's snotting around the home counties in an open-top sports car and wooing the ladies with his sporting prowess. At a cricket match, he lofts a six into the cakes and teapots to attract the attention of a spectating beauty: she is Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), and soon the pair fall in love.
After a brisk and very British wedding, it's off to Kenya where Robin has secured a job as a tea-broker. It's 1958, Diana soon falls pregnant, and things look rosy for the Cavendish family until Robin collapses on a tennis court. He's contracted polio, is rushed to hospital, and within weeks is paralysed from the neck down and can only breathe with the help of an iron lung. When the couple return to England, Robin is condemned to a specialist hospital ward and given just months to live. Understandably, he wants to die and tells his young wife she can "start again". But Diana is made of sterner stuff and encourages him to fight by promising she'll get him out of hospital.
The idea of a man with Robin's level of disability living at home was unheard of in those days and angry consultants tell Diana that her husband will be dead in weeks if he leaves hospital. But she won't listen. She's bought a crumbling pile in rural Oxfordshire, manages to get her hands on the ventilating equipment that will help her husband breathe, and brings him home to live with herself and her young son.
It won't be plain sailing: Diana has a manual ventilating pump she must work by hand when the electricity goes, and in one absurd but terrifying scene, Robin almost suffocates when the dog pulls the plug on his breathing machine. But surrounded by his family, he rallies, and along with his wife and circle of resourceful friends, he refuses to accept the restrictions society has imposed on the disabled.
One of those friends, Teddy Hall (a perfectly cast Hugh Bonneville), is an Oxford professor and inventor, who pulls together the world's first motorised wheelchair so his friend can get about on his own. A wheelchair-friendly van is created that allows Robin to travel and even embark on an eventful holiday to Spain. Robin would live into his 60s, blazing a trail by living a remarkably full life and becoming a compelling disability rights campaigner.
For Andy Serkis, Breathe has been a very personal project. His partner at their production studio, Imaginarium, is Robin and Diana's son, Jonathan. No pressure then - and perhaps the biggest potential pitfall was sentimentalising the existential horror of Robin's predicament.
There are sugary moments, but overall we're given enough salt to make this life-affirming story more than palatable. Whenever Robin's machine fails, he risks drowning in his own blood within minutes and must learn to live with the constant proximity of death. His despair when confined to hospital is most convincing and makes you wonder how he found the courage to carry on in such unspeakable circumstances.
Serkis's direction is more than solid and gives us the emotional highs this kind of story needs. Foy is as good as ever as Diana, a privileged and untested young woman who finds incredible reserves of inner strength when fate deals her a singularly nasty hand. But it's Garfield who makes this film function.
Once the smug and callow juvenile lead everyone loved to hate, he's emerged as an actor of real substance over the last year or so, playing a pacifist soldier in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge and a faltering 17th century Jesuit in Martin Scorsese's Silence.
In Breathe, Garfield has only his face to work with, but uses eyes, brow, mouth and teeth to create a compelling portrayal of a man whose dignity illness cannot break.
Films coming soon...
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan); Murder On The Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz); Condemned To Remember (Tomi Reichental); Conor McGregor: Notorious (Conor McGregor).