Synopsis – The inspiring true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease. Their heartwarming celebration of human possibility marks the directorial debut of Andy Serkis.
My Take – Making a film on someone suffering from paralysis is difficult, however for first time director Andy Serkis, this is clearly a very personal project. This film, a classic, old fashioned, romantic tear jerker may seem like an odd choice for an actor, best known for such memorable performance capture work as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series, Caesar in the rebooted ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy and as the villain, Snoek, in the blockbuster ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, to pick up as his first serious stab at directing, mainly as you guess from the premise, it’s a world away from that kind of Hollywood fare Serkis has gained recognition for. Plus, didn’t we have a similar subject in the Oscar winning 2014 film The Theory of Everything? Sure, it is no bad thing to be reminded that people with disabilities can achieve remarkable things. In Stephen Hawking’s case, he was still able to make great contributions to theoretical physics, however, here the relatively unknown Robin Cavendish transformed the treatment of those with paralysis, starting from the U.K. and branching worldwide. Thankfully, Serkis succeeds here as a filmmaker by involving us in a deeply felt love story that rises above its expected clichés and inspires in the best way possible by being an exceptional tale of strength, clever ingenuity, and tireless advocacy. Based on the true story of one of Serkis’s closest friends and the producer of the film, Jonathan Cavendish‘s parents, the story follows Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a 28-year-old tea merchant who courts and marries Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) and moves to Kenya soon after with a lifetime of adventure ahead of them, that is, until eight months later, Robin is contracted by polio, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, with his doctors, led by Dr. Entwistle (Jonathan Hyde) informing that he may have only a few months to live. Returning to the U.K., Robin faces a grim future in a hospital bed, but Diana, determined that their newborn son will grow up knowing and loving his father, won’t give in to either the medical prognosis or Robin’s own self-defeating attitude.
At home, the Cavendish family enlists the help of family and friends, including eccentric inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), who equips a wheelchair with a respirator that allows Robin to go outside & even to travel abroad. Over the following two decades, the couple make drastic improvements to the quality of life for Robin and other severely disabled people like him around the world. Let me warn you before hand, if you’re going in expecting something light hearted, then don’t go, as it will have you in tears, if you’re expecting a gritty, true to life story of overcoming adversity, then this is one film I’d recommend, as this has to be one of the most touching films I’ve seen in a row (after Wonder), you’d be hard hearted if you weren’t moved close to tears as you see the life of Robin Cavendish fall apart, and that of the family around him. In his directorial debut, Andy Serkis presents us with a lush tale of romance against the country roads and estates of England, before traveling to the plains of Kenya—all of it shot in a super-wide format. The expectation is that the film will mimic the look and tone of the epic love stories from the past, from the wide shots of the British countryside to a medium shot of the silhouettes of the romantic leads dancing against a burning African sunset. For his part, director Serkis‘ film is a handsome affair, gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and there are cinematic flourishes throughout. What few visible special effects there are are concentrated on Tom Hollander‘s dual performance as Diana’s twin brothers, and it’s quietly showy stuff in the same vein as the Winklevi brothers (played by Armie Hammer) in The Social Network. The screenplay by William Nicholson notably enhance the film and there are moments that chill, such as a scene in a German clinic where polio patients lie imprisoned in iron-lung chambers in a large antiseptic room, and another when Robin nearly dies due to a power outage, in the end, what shines through is an important message about the courage of the human spirit. It’s one of those inspirational stories, of course, but director Serkis doesn’t present it with the kind of phony sentimentality that one might expect from the phrase inspirational story. It’s as much about the details of living with and caring for someone with a disability as it is about overcoming such limitations. There’s a lot of strength and courage on display, but from the perspective of these characters, those qualities are not as important as the simple desire to live to the best of one’s ability. The film doesn’t present Cavendish as a hero, although it’s undeniable that he is in a few respects, as he is simply a man, surrounded by a group of good-hearted and loving people, who does not want to spend the rest of his life in the prison of a hospital or a bed at home. The effortlessness with which Robin and Diana move through their years together is particularly egregious when they travel to Spain, trying to keep their previously adventurous lifestyle somewhat alive. When Robin’s respirator craps out, a passerby quickly helps them contact Teddy, so that their friend can fly out and rescue them. Along with polio, the film would have you believe Robin caught a bit of the Midas Touch as well and some of my favorite scenes in the film are these lively fetes of drinking, cavorting, and costumes, with Robin at the center, grinning from ear to ear and happy to be alive. William Nicholson’s screenplay is less concerned with big events and more invested in the day-to-day details of Robin and his family’s life. This is right, since the big moments here are founded upon what would seem routine or inconsequential to someone without Robin’s disability. It’s in Robin’s first night home from the hospital, when Diana is able to lie next to her husband in bed. It’s in going outside with his son or taking a family vacation in Spain, where the family van breaks down, leading to an impromptu, days-long party on the side of the road with people from a nearby village. As trite as it may sound, the film serves as a celebration of the little things, which are made more difficult by Robin’s condition but seem exponentially more rewarding. Aside from the ridiculous scene of an ‘escape’ from hospital that looks like it should’ve been speeded-up slapstick style, director Serkis acquits himself admirably in a film that becomes stronger and deeper as the years pass by on screen.
Gritty elements such as the day-to-day depiction of people suffering from polio and their reliance on others, the understandable need for permanent escape but also on a lighter note: Cavendish’s frequent candid humor and sparky character. However, the extraordinary accomplishments do not hide the sadness of his situation, the depression that accompanied terminal illness and the restrictions it has on the lives of those it surrounds. This spell of unending optimism is finally broken toward the end of the film, when Robin travels to Germany to see the unconscionable manner in which renowned doctors care for their disabled patients and is subsequently moved to free them from their inhumane conditions. His speech to a room full of doctors and nurses is heartfelt despite its cloying sentimentality, but it’s the unexpected grace of the ending that finally allows for a true sense of self-reflection and emotional purging that much of the film mutes. The last half hour is dedicated to Cavendish’s eventual demise which tarnishes the saccharine sweetness which could have enveloped the film. However, this is a feel-good film at the heart of it and so it cannot fully escape the twee elements and predicable soppiness littered throughout; perhaps unavoidable when telling such a story. Sure, at times, the film can be a bit overly sentimental and glosses over some of the problems the couple must have endured along the way, but sentimentality is easy to forgive. Despite hitting most of the predictable biopic beats along the way, the film ends with an extended, meditative sequence that doubles as an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of the disabled and the right to death with dignity. This is, after all, a loving tribute by a son to his parents—an inspiring couple who overcame all medical odds to live full and meaningful lives. Of course, the film wouldn’t work half as well or be as nearly as affecting if not for a host of really great performances, starting with Andrew Garfield. Garfield is in a terrific phase right now, doing more than enough to establish himself post-the Amazing Spider-Man films, with his Oscar nominated leading role in Hacksaw Ridge, his superior turn in Marting Sorcese’s Silence and now his wrenching and expressive work here. Garfield’s performance is like an act of will, so steady, persuasive, even charming, that one can’t help but feel buoyed by his good-natured determination. His turn is very well matched with Claire Foy, who is just marvelous! Foy takes on Diana with similar grace and ferocity. She excellently depicts the panic of the prospect of living life alone, throwing herself into making her husband’s life enjoyable, and making Robin’s happiness her entire life purpose. Together, they are entirely believable as a tag team duo who simply won’t surrender in the face of any obstacle. Equally impressive in supporting roles are Tom Hollander playing the fretting twin brothers & Hugh Bonneville who adds in the much needed humor from time to time. On the whole, ‘Breathe’ is a well presented inspirational story that works well thanks to its fine performances and solid direction.
Directed – Andy Serkis
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 118 minutes