Few true accounts of dogged determination and selfless love resonate like the story of Diana and Robin Cavendish in actor Andy Serkis' ("War for the Planet of the Apes", 2017) directorial debut, "Breathe". Refusing to accept the dire ramifications of a dreadful disease, this young couple embarks on a journey which will affect the lives of many around the world.
Ex-British Army officer Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets the lovely, aristocratic heartbreaker Diana (Claire Foy) at a cricket match. Though Robin is not of Diana's class, she falls for him despite the warnings of her twin brothers, David and Bloggs (both played by Tom Hollander). They marry and move to Kenya, where Robin is searching for teas to export. He is ecstatic when Diana tells him she is pregnant.
A highly competitive athlete, Robin takes all sports seriously. When he falters playing afternoon tennis, and ends up in the hospital, the diagnosis is polio. Paralyzed from the neck down, Robin must rely on a respirator to breathe for him. Jonathan is born, but even his infant son cannot alleviate Robin's depression.
Diana, however, is unwilling to give up. They return to England and Robin is subjugated to the permanence of a hospital bed. Begging Diana to free him, she arranges for his equipment to be transported to a rather dilapidated country home. With the help of Diana's brothers, their good friends and an ingenious inventor, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin is able to experience a mobile life again.
Hall has devised a wheelchair which also transports Robin's respirator. The escapades of Robin, Diana and Jonathan (Dean- Charles Chapman) come to the attention of Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan), director of the Disability Research Foundation. Traveling to Germany to address a symposium on patients with severe disabilities. Robin and Dr. Aitken change the future of people like Robin.
"Breathe" is written by two-time Oscar nominee William Nicholson and produced by Jonathan Cavendish. Cavendish was convinced that Nicholson was perfect for penning the truly romantic and revelatory biopic of his parents. He is quoted stating that "Bill can write British understatement and emotional complexity better than anyone else." And I totally agree.
This film is beautifully British. Both Robin and Diana, despite their difficult circumstances, prevail with their stiff upper lips. Foy and Garfield are ideally matched and give the strong performances necessary to elicit the proper emotions brought on by this remarkable true romance. These two young people of the 1950's are in love, and the impressive actors portraying them make us believe that emphatically.
Foy, best known as Queen Elizabeth in the hit Netflix series "The Crown", is exquisite as the fiercely determined Diana. She plays Diana as devotedly supportive without being a doormat. Her reaction to her husband's final request is priceless --- and so very British.
Garfield's job is a tad more challenging because, of course, it would be very easy to slide into a maudlin depiction of a life confined to a bed or wheelchair. But Garfield goes for the gusto and we hang on for the ride. Figuring out the semantics of playing a dashing Brit, who goes from an idyllic life to one confined by an ever-constant machine, is difficult, but he manages brilliantly. He does not ever overindulge Robin.
Opinion: See It Now!
"Breathe" is the inspirational, highly emotional and ultimately fascinating true story of Robin Cavendish, a young British man struck down by polio at the age of twenty-eight. An active tennis player, cricket player and pilot in the 1950's, Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) became paralyzed from the neck down, and was given only months to live. He wanted to die, but his wife, Diana (Claire Foy), had other ideas.
With her unwavering support, and that of others, like her twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (Tom Hollander in dual roles), plus inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin was able to not just survive, but live for many years outside of a hospital setting. Such a thing was unheard of for the "severely disabled" -- a term you'll hear a lot in
"Breathe" --- but thanks to Hall, Robin was provided a special wheelchair with an attached respirator which enabled him to breathe.
He not only leaves his hospital bed, but manages to travel to other countries.
One of the most heart-tugging scenes in the film occurs when Robin addresses a group of German scientists and medical personnel who only knew how to help the "severely disabled" to exist, with no quality of life as we know it. But Hall's ingenious invention allowed thousands of people in similar situations to live full and productive lives far beyond anyone's expectations.
Garfield's performance makes him a legitimate contender for a Best Actor nomination. Academy voters love portrayals that deal with extreme human hardships, as Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne proved when he played Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". Equal to Garfield in this moving film is Foy (Netflix' "The Crown") as Diana. Her devotion and commitment to her stricken husband is a testimony to the human spirit, and the great love between this couple. She simply would not allow him to give up. Foy is quietly magnificent in the role.
Diana Rigg has what amounts to a cameo as a wealthy dowager who ends up bequeathing a portion of her considerable fortune towards the manufacture of Hall's special wheelchairs. It's a brief role, but vital to the story.
"Breathe" is exceptionally well presented, and features a screenplay by two-time Oscar nominee William Nicholson ("Gladiator", "Shadowland"). Making his feature film debut as director is famed actor Andy Serkis, who hired triple Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson ("JFK", "The Aviator") to shoot this film. The scene depicting "severely disabled" individuals lying face up in their iron lungs --- only their heads are visible --- is both shocking and disheartening. But it serves as the catalyst for Cavendish to convince doctors that the wheelchair/respirator combination represented a new lease on life for these unfortunate individuals.
While confined to his hospital bed, Robin is eager for death to intervene and free him. But with Diana's urging, and the help of sympathetic hospital personnel, Robin escapes to his home. His new environment is a triumph, wiping away his gloom, allowing him to embrace his new-born son, and re-establish his loving relationship with his wife. "Breathe" is a beautifully told story, anchored by two exceptional performances.
Opinion: See It Now!