In “Breathe” Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, one of the longest-lived responauts in Britain history. It is, among other things, undoubtedly the bubbliest movie about polio ever made.
The opening moments of breeze are so unrelentingly chipper that as an audience member you just know the party will soon and in some sort of tragedy will happen. When we first meet Cavendish it’s 1958. He’s a young, vital man who falls in love at first sight with Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), a beautiful, rich woman he meets at a cricket match. It’s all sunshine and roses as they quickly fall in love, get married, get pregnant and move to Kenya to pursue Robin’s career as a tea merchant.
It’s a picture perfect romance until Robin’s health begins to falter. He’s short of breath, his limb ache. Soon he can barely stand. By the time he is diagnosed with polio he is paralyzed from the neck down. “The result is you become like a ragdoll,” Diana is told by the doctor. “He can’t breath for himself. The paralysis is irreversible.”
Grim news for the newlyweds. Given just three months to live Robin asks to be allowed to die but his doctors and Diana will hear nothing of it. Hooked up to a ventilator he lays motionless and despondent in a hospital ward waiting for the inevitable. Unable to find any joy in life he tries to push Diana away but she perseveres, visiting everyday.
Then the jaunty music reappears on the soundtrack and a smile returns to Robin’s face. The couple hatch a plan to move home so Robin can live out his final moments surrounded by the creature comforts of home. “No one, anywhere in the world with your husband’s degree of disability exists outside a hospital,” warns the doctor. Except that he does. In fact he thrives, living for decades, becoming an activist for disabled people and helping to design mobile life support machines to untether patients from their beds. “Do you see a creature who is barely alive,” he asks, “or a man who escaped the confines of a hospital board? I don’t want to just survive I want to truly live.”
“Breathe” breathes the same air as other indomitable spirit movies like “My Left Foot” and “The Theory of Everything.” The big difference is that this is a relentlessly upbeat film. “Are we plucky or pitiful” asks Diana. The answer is obvious but eventually there is something endearing, winning even, about its uncompromisingly buoyant tone. Perhaps that’s because director Andy Serkis paints the story as a love story rather than a medical drama or maybe it’s because of the winning performances from Garfield and Foy.
Garfield is ostensibly the lead but it is Foy who impresses. “The Crown” actress is the heart and soul of the story, providing a rock solid foundation for Garfield’s character.
“Breathe” doesn’t have the gravitas of “The Theory of Everything”—it spends too much time trying to wring all the emotion out of the story like tears from a sponge—but it does have compassion and heart.