Film Review: Breathe

With the dumpster fire of a year that 2017 has been (and that 2016 was before that), it seems fitting that the Boxing Day film releases will include something more measured and contemplative than the usual everything’s-fine-some-hero’s-implausibly-saving-the-world blockbusters.

The fictionalised tale of real-life events Breathe (not to be confused with Tim Winton’s similarly titled Breath) is one of those releases. (You can watch the Breathe trailer below.)

Recounting the unlikely life of Englishman Robin Cavendish, who was paralysed from the neck down by polio at age 28 while working as a tea trader in Kenya, it is both uplifting and tears-inducing. And I’d wholeheartedly recommend heading out on Boxing Day to watch it.

‘What follows is true’ appears on screen as the camera traverses English countryside in the film’s opening shots. It’s an arguably necessary statement because what follows does seem a little far-fetched at times. But the film does, we’re assured, recall the real-life events of film producer Jonathan Cavendish, partner to actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (best known for playing such characters as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) in the Imaginarium Productions production company, which brought this film to screen life.

Marking Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe is both about how we understand and treat disability and about love. Specifically, the kind of pragmatic, deeply held love that refuses to give up.

In the film’s early stages we witness Diana (played by Claire Foy of Crown fame) and Robin (Andrew Garfield) meet and fall madly in love. Their adoration for each other is infectious, and I found myself smiling in the cinema’s dark.

In the film’s middle, we see a different Robin. One whose charisma and charm is replaced by a deep depression and desire for the medical team keeping him alive with 24-hour hospital care to switch off the respirator. It’s difficult to watch, but sets the ground for Diana to refuse to let depression and then-current medical approaches limit his—their—life. What follows is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, with Diana and Robin defying doctors’ orders and expectations to take Robin home.

I was tense much of the time watching this film. Robin’s death was a certainty without oxygen, so much so that doctors didn’t believe he could survive outside a sterile hospital setting. The risk of death is, unsurprisingly, a constant theme throughout the film. In fact, there are two scenes—one at home and one in the Spanish countryside, of all places—that had me physically rigid with worry and that have continued to haunt me. Which goes to show just how much this film succeeded in drawing me in.

Of course, Breathe does have some nagging flaws—most notably that Robin is played by someone able-bodied, which reminds me of the issues that surrounded cisgendered Eddie Redmayne playing Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in the film adaptation of The Danish Girl. The film is also relentlessly optimistic. It would have benefitted, for example, from showing a little more of the day-to-day difficulties profound disability presents both the person with the disability and the people who love and care for them. Foy’s Diana is British stoic, sure, but we catch but one mere glimpse of how difficult it must have been for her.

Still, Breathe is arguably true to Jonathan Cavendish’s childhood memories. The memories that provided the film’s foundations and that, at the very least, help show disability and our treatment of people with disability in new light. It also offers insight into the medical technologies available then and makes some inroads into altering how people think about—and how we can innovate for people with—disability.

I’ll not deny that Breathe made me ugly cry. I admit that only so you might not make the mistake I did and turn up without a handful of tissues. But it also made me laugh and contemplate and appreciate life and love and the ability to triumph over adversity. In short, it felt like the right kind of film for this year’s Boxing Day.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.

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