BREATHE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Andy Serkis

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Diana Rigg, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde, David Wilmot, Stephen Mangan, Dean-Charles Chapman.

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The opening night film at the recent British Film Festival at Palace Cinemas, Breathe is an unashamedly old-fashioned tear jerker that will appeal to the same demographic that loved films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc.

This is the inspiring true story of Robin Cavendish (played here by Andrew Garfield, from Hacksaw Ridge, etc), who was struck down by polio at the age of 28 while living in Kenya with his wife Diana (played by Claire Foy, from the tv series The Crown, etc). In 1957 that was virtually a death sentence. He was left paralysed, dependent on a respirator to breathe for him. Initially Robin struggled and was depressed, and often thought of committing suicide. But with the love and devotion of Diana, who was determined in her efforts to help Robin find the will to keep on living, Robin was able to live a full life for another couple of decades.

Against doctor’s orders, she removed Robin from the hospital, where he was bedridden, and set him up at home with a portable respirator that enabled him to breathe. Her inventor uncle Teddy Hall (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) created a special wheelchair that carried its own respirator, giving Robin mobility and allowing him to escape the confines of their house. Robin eventually became a champion for disabled people, advocating for better treatment and respect from the medical profession. In one quite disturbing scene he visited a hospital in Germany where polio patients were virtually locked in clinical prisons. In another scene, a family trip to Spain provides plenty of moments of warmth and good humour.

Breathe was actually commissioned by Cavendish’s film producer son Jonathan, who is credited as one of the executive producers, and there is a sense that the filmmakers here have sugar coated some of the harsher realities and, in particular, the ending for public consumption. The screenplay has been written by Oscar nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, etc), although the heartfelt nature of the moving, three tissue material here has more in common with his touching romantic drama Shadowlands. The film also offers some great insights into the emotional plight of the severely disabled.

Breathe marks the debut feature as director for Andy Serkis, an actor better known for his work as a motion capture performer on films like The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and the modern Planet Of The Apes reboots where he suffused the character of Caesar with humanity and compassion. Serkis steps behind the camera, and handles the material with confidence that belies his lack of experience. Although the film is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, he still keeps a firm grip on the material, handling the subject matter with delicacy. He suffuses the grim nature of the material with an optimism that is hard to resist. This is also something of a personal film for Serkis, whose sister suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Given his experience in coaxing great performances out of actors via motion capture technology, Serkis elicits strong performances from his leads. Garfield delivers a committed performance but does not over emote in a role that allows him to only use a few body parts to convey a range of emotions. Foy brings a steely quality to her performance as the devoted Diana, although her role is less physically challenging. Tom Hollander brings welcome touches of humour to his dual role as Diana’s loyal and supportive twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker.

Technical contributions are all excellent. Breathe has been beautifully shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (Hugo, etc), who bathes the film in a bright palette. And the production design from James Merifield (Final Portrait, etc) captures the period detail well.

This inspiring story of courage, the indomitable human spirit, triumph over adversity, love, and one man’s determination to live life to the fullest despite his handicap will strongly remind audiences of films like My Left Foot, the Oscar winning biopic of Christy Brown, which starred Daniel Day Lewis, and The Theory Of Everything in which Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his performance as Stephen Hawking. It will also resonate strongly with audiences who remember the touching drama The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt; and even the wonderful French comedy The Intouchables, although they were all superior films.

★★★

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