Next time you’re in bed just lie there. Leave your limbs frozen, your neck paralysed. Don’t move a muscle, be completely still. Not much you can do, access or achieve is there? That’s the only way we can picture what life must have been like for Robin Cavendish, the innovator and visionary who helped create the wheelchair with a built-in respirator after he was diagnosed with polio aged 28, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and unable to breathe for himself.
Breathe tells the moving true story of not just Cavendish’s (Andrew Garfield) journey, but the experiences of his faithful friends and unwaveringly loyal and fiercely devoted wife, Diana (Claire Foy) as together, they push the boundaries and perceptions of what it meant to be disabled to where no one had dared – or bothered – to push them before, becoming steadfast supporters and advocates for the rights and independence of the disabled population of sixties Britain.
It’s no surprise that Breathe is such a stirring and emotive sensation given that Robin Cavendish’s only son, Jonathan produced the film. Running his own production company Imaginarium Studios in real life- it seemed only natural that he would want to tell the inspiring story of his father, who was made an MBE in 1974 for his part in improving the lives of disabled people. Jonathan Cavendish commissioned writer William Nicholson to pen the screenplay and there’s no doubt he made the right choice for the script is pure gold. From powerful lines such as Robin telling a summit of doctors and representatives for disabled people in Germany that ‘I don’t want to just survive, I want to truly live’ and provocative questions like ‘why do you keep your disabled people in prisons?’, to the witty one-liners like Robin’s smile-inducing reply of “you’re on” in response to his friend Paddy’s (David Wilmot) teasing of “five pounds says you’ll never make it” when Diana and Robin’s friends announce they’re going to break him out of the hospital he’s been confined to, all aptly communicate Robins’ dry humour and resilient spirit.
I always wonder when it comes to films – a bit like the whole concept of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” – is it a first-class script that makes a film or the calibre and skill of the actors who deliver the lines and embody the semantics behind the words? Just as Johnathan Cavendish chose wisely when it came to deciding on a screenwriter, director Andy Serkis and his casting team made smart decisions when it came to actors. The on-screen chemistry between Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield is palpable and infectious. They tease each other as only a couple in love would and their relationship is truly endearing to watch as Claire, portraying Diana, motivates Robin to remain upbeat, to continue to find ways of travelling, seeing his son grow up and spurs him on to help others like him. The result is that you become truly invested in the couple – happy for them when they reach a new milestone like getting the wheelchair in the van for the first time so they can travel to the idyllic country or to Spain, proud when they, rather amusingly and smugly, defy his strict medical consultant’s advice to discharge Robin from hospital, horrified and devasted when seeing scenes like paralysed patients in a German hospital literally stacked up and confined like prisoners and Robin nearly agonisingly suffocate when the family dog rips out the plug powering his respirator machine, truly leave a lasting mark.
While I’ve not seen The Crown, it’s clear to see why Claire Foy, who dazzles in it by all accounts, was cast as the lead. It was also nice to see Andrew Garfield swap the action of playing Spiderman for unleashing this captivating performance as the pioneer of disabled independence. The acting of Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones fame left a lot to be desired though, his performance seeming wooden and, frankly a bit false and unrealistic as the Cavendish’s 220year-old son. Diana’s twin brothers played by Tom Hollander offer some comic relief, however, whilst David Wilmot is brilliant as Paddy, who shares wonderful boyish banter with Robin whilst the two are in hospital.
Hardly anyone watches a film to be lectured or preached to. Some watch because they appreciate film as an art form, others go for escapism. Sometimes though, film can be a beautiful and visual vehicle, transporting us to new insights and perspectives. Breathe doesn’t ‘over-do’ the disability rights element. Instead, it leaves audiences asking the profound question of “what is possible?” and the answer is, well, anything is really, it’s just about being bold enough to figure out the means of making the impossible reality.