Andrew Garfield stars as Robin Cavendish, a British man who was paralyzed by polio while living in Kenya at the age of 28 and lived nearly another four decades using a breathing machine. He became the longest-living “responaut” at the time, and a major advocate and innovator for people with disability.
It’s another bravura performance by Garfield that is sure to gain notice during the awards season.
Before Robin came along, the ‘severely disabled’ — the term he used, so I will too — were confined to hospital beds for the rest of their lives, which not coincidentally was generally not very long. Robin himself was initially given three months to live. When his heroic wife, Diana (Claire Foy), insists on removing Robin from the hospital over the objections of the chief doctor, he snootily predicts Robin will be dead within two weeks.
Andy Serkis, an actor who has pioneered the excellence of motion capture performance, steps behind the camera for the first time as a director. William Nicholson wrote the screenplay, which takes the usual turns but does so in sensitive ways.
At first I worried “Breathe” would be a standard-issue “disabled person inspires others” type of film — sort of the ‘Magic Negro’ effect with wheelchairs — and certainly there are aspects of that to the material. But the film is pretty straightforward in depicting Robin’s condition and his emotional state, which was at times suicidal — even well after he adapted to his condition and became a beacon for change.
With the help of a friend who’s a clever tinkerer (the ever-reliable Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana rig up a wheelchair that allows him to move around, go outdoors and interact with others. It’s hard to believe, but in the early 1960s this was a shocking thing, to see a paralyzed man out in the sun in plain view, and not hidden away from sight.
Several times in the movie, people react to Robin’s presence with shock, claiming it’s unfair for “sick” people to be out and about. What they really mean, however, is having to be exposed to the view of someone who’s different and, they think, worthy of their pity rather than simple respect.
Though a tad maudlin in the first half, “Breathe” gets stronger and stronger as it goes, and the last act is as empathetic as anything I’ve seen this year. Definitely bring your hankies for this one.
Interesting aside: in searching for photos to go with this review, there are many to be found of Garfield and Foy embracing against a romantic African backdrop — but very few of Garfield lying prone, hooked up to a respirator. This is, of course, how Robin spent the majority of his life, and how Garfield spends most of the movie.
It’s disappointing that a film whose entire theme is about not marginalizing the less able would be marketed in such a way as to obscure what it’s really about. Let it be said that Hollywood often preaches that which it does not practice.