I was unable to go to this year’s London Film Festival and so I was relieved that one of the films I had been most looking forward to seeing, was coming out this month in the UK. The film is out now, but I was lucky enough to go to a preview screening last Monday, complete with Q&A with its star Andrew Garfield, director Andy Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the couple depicted on screen, but more on the Q&A later.
Breathe is a beautiful film. From hearing what it is about you may think it is going to be a very sad one, but, although containing some very moving scenes, the overall spirit of Breathe is one of hope, love and the resounding message that we all need to live, as richly and fully as we can.
It is the story of Robin and Diana Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy), who meet in 1957 and soon marry. Robin is a tea broker and so they travel to Kenya for his work, enjoying a happy and loving life together. It is when Diana is pregnant with their first child, that Robin contracts polio, which results in the devastating news that he will be permanently paralysed from the neck down. He can only last two minutes at most off an external ventilator and doctors give him mere months to live.
Understandably Robin’s reaction is one of depression and defeat. He does not want to live, locked away in a hospital, unable to move and dependent on a machine and the staff around him and Garfield plays his withdrawal with such rich depth, not an easy task, when so much has to be conveyed through the face and the eyes. Not many actors could convey such emotions, but Garfield is one of the best around, both on stage and screen (his recents roles in Hacksaw Ridge on screen and Angels In America on stage, both had me shedding tears).
However, the key to Robin’s renewed sense of living, is thanks to the love and unwavering support he receives from his wife Diana and Claire Foy is utterly superb in this film (give her the nominations for the awards now). As with Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, a lot of my tears shed during Breathe, were due to seeing the other person affected by such a prognosis and Foy shows how much strength Diana Cavendish had to have. She was away from home, pregnant and faced with losing her husband. It is clear that the reason Robin went on to live for decades is because of her and I left the cinema inspired by her strength.
Their story is not just about their determination to continue to live as a family, as the Cavendish’s fought for rights of those with disabilities, who at that time, were simply locked away and forgotten about by society. The resistance they face at removing Robin from the hospital is frightening and a scene in which he visits a hospital in Germany, in which people with similar paralysis are housed in storage units, seems unimaginable and highlights how important their work to have those with disabilities seen as human beings really was.
Breathe is blessed with many components that come together to create such a wonderfully satisfying film. First, it has been brought to the screen by producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana. He talked during the Q&A about how this was the most truthful biopic you would see, as everything in it happened. The involvement of those who were there, or knew those who were, ensures that you feel the authenticity of the film and also adds to the emotional response you have to the story, on knowing it all happened.
The film also has a strong script from William Nicholson (who refused payment until the Cavendish family had read it and were happy for it to be made), which balances the sadder moments, with the overwhelming sense of joy and fun that you see. Yes, I did shed some tears throughout Breathe, but I also laughed a lot too. There are many moments of fun and humour, as we see how the Cavendish’s and their group of close friends adapt to Robin’s new circumstances, including when the family goes on holiday to Spain and have to pull over by the side of a cliff road, when Robin’s ventilator breaks. While help is called from England (in the form of Hugh Bonneville as their wonderful friend Professor Teddy Hall) and the manual pump is used to keep him alive, they are soon surrounded by locals, setting up caravans and fires and a party atmosphere! It seems so crazy, yet it happened, meaning an event that could have been frightening, actually still seems full of life and humour and joy.
The film is also wonderfully directed by Andy Serkis (known best for his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit). This is the first film Serkis has directed (although he did work as second unit director on The Hobbit films) and he has delivered a truly lovely film. He spoke on Monday about how close he felt to the material, having once played a polio sufferer himself and by also growing up with a mother who taught special needs children and a sister who was diagnosed with MS. He read the script and was moved by it, asking to direct it, as part of his and Jonathan Cavendish’s company, The Imaginarium Studio. He also had to contend with the tricky task of filming Tom Hollander in two different roles, as he plays Diana’s twin brothers. Serkis spoke during the Q&A about how much work this took to achieve and commended Hollander’s talent in pulling it off.
The talent of the cast is the final crucial element of Breathe. Garfield is fantastic as Robin, first as the athletic, young man and then as someone having to cope with such a terrifying change in their life. Watching Garfield go through the stages of pain and grief at his limitations is heartbreaking (a scene where Diana lays their newborn child by his head just one example). He conveys so much emotion without saying much at all and you feel all of Robin’s pain and sense of loss. However, what makes his performance all the more incredible, is the way he also brings Robin’s playfulness and humour to the forefront too. You laugh along with him, as he continues to live and thrive against all the odds.
Breathe wouldn’t work if the actress portraying his wife Diana wasn’t an equal to Garfield and in Claire Foy (best known for Netflix’s The Crown), they found the ideal talent. It is hard to imagine having to find the strength Diana did and Foy is superb from start to finish as she comes to terms with what has happened, stubbornly refusing to let Robin give up and then doing everything humanly possible to make their lives as rich as possible. They were clearly an incredibly devoted couple and it’s heart-warming to see. Jonathan Cavendish talked in the Q&A about how well they depict his parents, calling it extraordinary, also saying his own 83 year-old mother, who never cries, does cry every time she watches Breathe, shocked by the accuracy of Garfield’s performance.
Surrounding Foy and Garfield is a tremendous cast of British acting talent. Bonneville is wonderful as the friend who builds Robin’s mobile chair, allowing him more freedom than had ever been thought possible at the time and Stephen Mangan plays Dr Aitken, the friend who helps on their mission to raise the profile of the need for rights for those with disabilities. Playing two twin brothers couldn’t have been easy for Hollander, but he’s perfect in the roles, bringing another layer of fun and comedy.
Combine all of these elements with beautiful music from Nintin Sawhney and you really do have a very special film, that feels incredibly personal to those who have brought it to life. I certainly hope it features in the nominations list next awards season and cannot recommend it highly enough. You will cry, but you will also laugh and leave the cinema with a reminder that life is precious and we should do everything we can, to live it to the full.
Breathe is now on general release in UK cinemas. For more information, visit its website here: http://www.breathefilm.co.uk/home/ and watch you can watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JycCFypvgmI