Breathe movie review: paralyzed but determined to be mobile (LFF 2017)

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Breathe green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A romance and a real-life adventure, full of life-and-death peril and unexpected cheerful good humor, about a pioneer in disability rights and dignity.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You’ll be dead in two weeks,” growls an unsympathetic doctor to Robin Cavendish, stricken with polio and unable to breathe on his own, as his wife, Diana, springs him from a British hospital. Apparently this was the way things were: Someone like Robin, paralyzed from the neck down and utterly dependent on a respirator, was expected to simply lie in a hospital bed for the rest of his life, presumed to be no more than a few months anyway. I suppose that cantankerous doctor had his patient’s best interests at heart, since no one in Robin’s condition had ever survived outside a hospital before. The thing is, though: No one had ever even tried.

“What’s that, old bean? Polio, you say? Well, that’s not very cricket, is it?”
“What’s that, old bean? Polio, you say? Well, that’s not very cricket, is it?”tweet

Breathe, then, is an adventure story. It’s shaped as a romance, as determined Diana (Claire Foy: Rosewater, Season of the Witch) dedicates herself to making an actual life for herself, her husband, and their newborn son, rather than abandoning Robin (Andrew Garfield: Silence, 99 Homes) to a short, clinically warehoused life. (“Let me die,” he tells her in the early hopelessness of his disability. She refuses, with all the pert English-rose spunk she has on tap.) It’s a true story, too, one based on the real lives of the parents of producer Jonathan Cavendish (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), filmmaking parter of Andy Serkis, who makes his feature directing debut here. (Serkis previously did some intensive and technically challenging second-unit directing work on the Hobbit trilogy.) And there’s a whole bunch of triumph-of-the-human-spirit drama going on here as well. But mostly, Breathe is a tale full of life-and-death peril — and an unexpected amount of cheerful good humor — about what it took to create the sort of accessible world that is really necessary to a human spirit looking to triumph after it takes a beating.

So recent! So recent a time when a disabled person could be told to just forget about having a meaningful quality of life.

There’s an almost timeless, or at least timelessly early-20th-century, feeling to the opening sequences of Breathe, as we are introduced to Robin and Diana during their courtship and newlywed life. It’s all lawn parties and cricket in England and then on to dreamy, exotic Kenya, where Robin’s work as a tea broker forces them to endure spectacular sunsets, cocktails on the veranda, and biplane expeditions through verdant mountains. We could almost have time-travelled back to the 1920s or 30s… but in fact it’s 1958 when 28-year-old Robin is laid low by polio, and 1960 when they return to England to face that demoralizing reality of disabled life. So recent! So recent a time when a previously robust and athletic chap like Robin was told to just forget about having a meaningful quality of life, or any life at all. It seems unfathomable.

“What a simply smashing life we have in Kenya, darling. I hope nothing pops up to queer it.”
“What a simply smashing life we have in Kenya, darling. I hope nothing pops up to queer it.”tweet

“But never mind!” the remarkably exuberanttweet Breathe seems to say. (The script is by William Nicholson [Everest, Unbroken].) Diana and Robin — with lots of help from Diana’s twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Riot Club) — enlist the assistance of their wacky inventor pal Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville: Viceroy’s House, Paddington), who marvels that no one has previously tried to cobble together a wheelchair with a portable battery-operated respirator, so by gum he’ll have to do it himself. (Soon, they were going into production with them, because there were lots of other people in the UK alone who could use them.) It’s all a bit madcap, and if ordinary people were just going to have to bloody get used to seeing a disabled person out and about, not hidden away in a hospital, so be it. Every step along the way of forcing the world open for Robin — such as jury-rigging a van to accommodate his wheelchair so that he is no more stuck at home than he would be in a hospital — throws up stumbling blocks to his comfort and dignity. And Robin and his gang just barrel right over them.

Breathe doesn’t pretend that any of the merry paradigm shifting it depicts was easy — and probably it was quite a bit more harrowing and rife with more setbacks than we see. But its optimism and sense of derring-do is charming and, much more importantly, genuinely inspiring.tweet The real Robin was a pioneer for the rights and humanity of disabled people, but there’s nothing portentous here, and nothing grim about disability… except the cultural approach to it that Robin and Diana challenged. Breathe is almost, and yet in no way inappropriately so, fun. Thanks to Robin’s activism, the British press coined a new word for people reliant on respirators but not letting that stop them from living: responaut. The resolute, cheeky intrepidnesstweet of that wonderful word is all over this movie.

viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival

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Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Sun, Jan 21, 2018 3:43pm

I started to watch this film – it was mentioned in an article about polio by a friend of mine. But the beginning was so sugary, I turned it off. I was curious what others had thought, and read a few reviews. Then I turned to my favourite reviewer, as a sort of treat, saved till last. Your enthusiasm carried me with it, and I went back to that film – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Like you I am gobsmacked that the events are so recent. I remember 1958 – and the children who were in calipers. But that German hospital, looking like a set for a science-fiction film, was in 1973! The film is a thorough inspiration. And should be compulsory viewing for anti-vaxxers.