Breathe is a love story wrapped in an astonishing account of two people reacting nobly and resourcefully when stricken by tragedy – or maybe it’s the other way round. Either way, this is a solid, old-fashioned film, with two stellar central performances and a spirited tale to tell.
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The reliably excellent Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, first seen as a handsome, self-confident young man in the 1950s. He falls in love with the smart, attractive Diana (Claire Foy), they marry, and he whisks her off to Africa, where he works as a tea broker. Soon she’s expecting a baby, and their life seems idyllic.
But then Robin develops polio, and is irreversibly paralysed. Unable to speak, he can barely move his eyes. He seems likely to die in a hospital bed. Demoralised, he appears to accept his fate, but Diana urges him to fight on, and at least spend time with his infant son Jonathan.
He accepts her challenge, and takes it to new levels. The couple devise a means for Robin to live at home, though still confined to bed and with a respirator, but able to enjoy the company of his wife and son far more. Then, with the help of a gaggle of highly inventive friends, he finds a way to attach the respirator first to a chair, and then later on inside a vehicle, so he can travel. Emboldened by his success, he becomes an advocate for people with disabilities, campaigning to enhance the quality of life for people once doomed to be confined to hospitals.
It’s a stirring tale, deftly outlined by screenwriter William Nicholson, with Andy Serkis (best known for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series), sensitively directing his first feature film. But the most remarkable credit is its producer, Jonathan Cavendish – the same Jonathan first seen as a baby in the film, then growing up into adolescence. He has now made a film in tribute to his own parents; it almost defines the phrase ‘labour of love.’
Breathe does them proud. It’s unashamedly warm and heartfelt and – understandably sentimental. More than a few scenes are suffused with a golden hue, which may feel somewhat over the top. Yet it’s redeemed by Garfield and Foy, both in top form, and displaying fine chemistry together.
Garfield traverses a whole spectrum of moods and physical fates: initially he’s a dashing, gung-ho, somewhat cocksure young man (something we’ve never seen from him before), becoming morose and despairing as his illness threatens to end his life, but eventually showing cheerful resilience as he turns his mind to helping others in the same predicament.
Claire Foy’s work, more understated, is equally effective. Her Diana is proud, resolute and utterly determined. She maintains a steely assurance about Robin’s plight, conveying the sheer awfulness and pain of their situation by the mere flick of an eyelid. Hers is a great performance.