When Robin Cavendish contracted polio in the late 1950s at the age of 28, he was irreversibly paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator, and given three months to live.
But he would beat that diagnosis by 36 years.
Breathe, the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis (famed for his motion capture performances in the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes series) tells the story of not only how Britain’s longest-living polio patient survived, by why, and how the two are inherently connected.
Initially, Robin (played by Andrew Garfield) wants to die: trapped in hospital and unable to move, he can barely face his wife Diana (Claire Foy) and newborn son Jonathan when they come to visit him.
But with the help of his family and friends, Robin is able to ‘escape’ the hospital during a memorable sequence in which his doctor (Jonathan Hyde) only relents after Robin compares his ward to a prison.
Robin’s life outside the hospital is one of more considerable peril: a power outage, ventilator malfunction, or wiring mishap, all of which occur, could prove fatal. But he decides it’s the only life worth living.
And almost without even knowing it, Robin becomes an advocate for the rights and comfort of the severely disabled. Fighting not just to survive but to enjoy life to the best of his capabilities, he commissions a professor friend to build transportation equipment that includes a special wheelchair that also holds his ventilator.
It was the first of it’s kind at the time, an era where the quality of a patient’s life was not a consideration of the medical establishment.
In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Robin and Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan) make the journey the the German Alps and one of the most preeminent facilities for the severely disabled: a state-of-the-art, almost futuristic ward where quadriplegic patients are kept wall-mounted beds with only their heads protruding from the walls.
The mere presence of Robin – a man in their condition yet one able to freely move about, displaying the kind of good spirits no hospital treatment can replicate – is a total shock to the German doctors, who ask him to leave. Later, Robin gives an impassioned speech at a conference about the care for the severely disabled, where he is the only disabled attendee.
Breathe feels sturdy and old-fashioned, and first-time director Serkis displays a keen visual sense and feel for the time and place. He also utilizes actor Tom Hollander in a dual role as Diana’s twin brothers, and gets emphatic lead performances that carry the film from Garfield and Foy.
It’s certainly not a challenging picture; the day-to-day difficulties of living in Robin’s condition often feel glossed over, or viewed with rose-tinted glasses. But that also feels somewhat appropriate: as end titles inform us, the film was produced by Jonathan Cavendish, an industry veteran who also had a hand in the first two Bridget Jones movies, and crafted as a loving ode to his father.