Director: Andy Serkis
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Diana Rigg, Hugh Bonneville
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 18 January 2018
Synopsis: Andy Serkis brings to life the inspiring true love story between Robin Cavendish (Academy Award(r) nominee, Andrew Garfield) and his wife Diana (Golden Globe Winner, Claire Foy), an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease. When Robin is struck down by polio at the age of 28, he is confined to a hospital bed and given only a few months to live. With the help of Diana's twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and the groundbreaking ideas of inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana dare to escape the hospital ward to seek out a full and passionate life together ― raising their young son, traveling and devoting their lives to helping other polio patients. Written by two-time Academy Award nominated writer William Nicholson, and shot by three-time Academy Award winner Robert Richardson, Breathe is a heartwarming celebration of love and human possibility.
There is a compelling, even uplifting, story at the heart of the late disability advocate Robin Cavendish’s extraordinary life, but ‘Breathe’ isn’t the movie to tell it. At best, it provides an overview into the saga of a well-to-do adventurer who was paralysed by polio at the age of 28, and then proceeded to defy the odds by outliving his expected lifespan by almost four decades and regaining his independence in ways that no one could ever have imagined possible. Oh yes, the film itself aims to squeeze these 40 years into the duration of two hours, and inevitably ends up jumping from one major episode in his life to another without going into sufficient intimate detail in any, leaving us ultimately unmoved.
That is truly a pity for many reasons, one of them being the fact that Robin’s real-life son Jonathan is one of the film’s producers and had clearly intended for it to be both an inspiration for the physically disabled as well as a deeply personal eulogy to his parents. The latter explains why this portrait of Robin’s life is as much his story as it is that of his devoted wife Diana’s, who was pregnant with their one and only child Jonathan at the time when he became paralysed and could only breathe with the assistance of a mechanical ventilator. In fact, the film’s most gripping moments lie in its first act, where we see how the newly married couple’s lives were torn asunder upon his contraction of the disease in Kenya and the depression that Robin immediately plunged into, so much so that he dared not look directly at his son until the boy was a couple of months old.
Unfortunately, that messy struggle seems to be over once Robin settles into his new house in the English countryside with the invaluable help of Diana and her twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander). Ostensibly more cheery than when he was lying in a hospital ward surrounded by other paraplegics, Robin enlists the help of his friend Teddy (Hugh Bonneville) to retrofit a wheelchair with a custom-made portable ventilator, which in turn enables him to venture further and further outdoors in a specially modified van. As an incident on a Spanish vacation shows, not even a broken respirator can get him down it seems; instead, the family enjoys the company of an impromptu fiesta with the locals, complete with guitarists and flamenco dancers, while waiting for Teddy to fly over and fix the machine.
That same warm, fuzzy optimism extends to Robin’s alliance with Dr Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan) of the Disability Foundation, who turns the former’s invention into a line of mechanical chairs for the severely disabled and encourages the former to use his own life experience for social advocacy. For reasons quite unknown, first-time director Andy Serkis (yes, the motion-capture actor better known for his roles in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’) seems strangely adamant at keeping the mood buoyant in the film’s second act, so much so that a sombre scene which shows how polio patients are housed in a German hospital is hardly dwelled upon before being succeeded by an uplifting speech that Robin delivers to somewhat backward-thinking medical professionals at a disability conference.
But to his credit, Serkis doesn’t shirk from ending the film on an elegiac note, jumping ahead a notable number of years to show the debilitating after-effects of being on a respirator for decades. Than leave it to fate to drown in his own blood one night, Robin decides to end his life on his own terms, and Serkis wisely opts for restrained understatement in the depiction of Robin’s death than outright histrionics, without losing sight of the conflicted emotions Diana and Jonathan must certainly have felt. It’s as graceful a farewell as it gets for a man who chose self-authority and autonomy at every turn, and a befittingly bittersweet ending that will leave a lump in your throat.
But as beautiful a closing as that may be, too much of the film feels like a series of joyful larks that diminish the challenges that Robin must no doubt have encountered as a responaut, or as a reformist whose innovations would certainly have been met with considerable resistance at the start. That explains why despite his debilities, Garfield seems to put on a cheerful smile for most of the movie, given how it hardly calls upon him to do any dramatic heavy-lifting at all. Same goes for Foy, who is duly established as a tenacious wife early on but whose role is gradually diminished over the course of the film. Still, insofar as their mutual scenes are concerned, Garfield and Foy definitely share enough chemistry with each other to convince us of the deep and enduring love between their characters.
As a romance therefore, ‘Breathe’ is entirely and very much watchable, but as a biopic of such an illuminating person as Robin, it is undeniably underwhelming. Not only does it fail to get under the skin of its central character, it also glosses over the significance of key turning points in his life, flitting from one to another without ever finding their resonance. At best then, it remains a tasteful prestige picture, complete with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Academy Award-winner Robert Richardson; and at worst, it is a by-the-numbers account of Robin’s life that lacks the verve, inventiveness and derring-do of its very subject. Even though it never does run out of air, ‘Breathe’ could do well with a jolt of life of its own.
(Pretty, tasteful but ultimately unexciting, this by-the-numbers account of the late disability advocate Robin Cavendish's life leaves you unmoved)
Review by Gabriel Chong