Breathe: The breath of life

December 15, 2017


Breathing is something we take for granted. That suddenly changed for 28-year-old Englishman Robin Cavendish when he was struck down by polio and could only survive with a machine breathing for him.

Breathe is heavily based on Robin’s true life story at a time when the prognosis for polio patients was measured in months, spent in a hospital permanently attached to a respirator.

Robin (Andrew Garfield) asks to be allowed to die, but he doesn’t factor in the ferocious love and determination of his wife Diana (Claire Foy). Not only does she tell him that she refuses to give up on him, she learns how to manage his respirator so she can take him home, despite the hospital’s strident opposition.

But the story doesn’t end there—Diana insists on creating a life, not just an existence, for a husband who can only move his head and face.

Despite being expected to live just a few months after he contracted polio at 28, Robin lived another 36 vibrant years, dying in 1994. 

Diana’s incredible determination and loyalty led to the couple asking Professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to invent a wheelchair with a respirator under it, so Robin could escape his bed.

So successful was the ‘Cavendish chair’, that we see Robin, Diana and young son Jonathan (born shortly after Robin’s polio was diagnosed) enjoying the great outdoors and, in a specially adapted van, even venturing to Spain for a family holiday.

This film would only work if the chemistry between the leads was believable, and it is magical. While it skates delicately over the obvious physical limitations of their marital relationship, it’s touching to see how Diana maintains a beautiful intimacy with Robin, and remains totally committed to her marriage.

The film follows the couple’s journey, with a close group of friends and supporters, to change the way society viewed severely disabled people. Robin and Diana were determined use technology to enable them to enjoy a fulfilling life.

After his initial wish to die, Robin chooses life, and what he achieves is remarkable and inspiring, as is Diana’s incredible support and zest for life.

Garfield’s performance is extraordinary, given that for most of the film he can only act with his head and face, and he makes the most of an occasionally waspish sense of humour. Understatement has always been a great British characteristic, and we see it in the humorous exchanges between Robin and Diana.

Writer William Nicholson (Shadowlands) is a master of the bittersweet ending, one which has elements of both triumph and sadness. How you view that ending will depend on your personal view of life-and-death issues. But it’s what happened in real life, and it isn’t sugar-coated, so take a tissue. 

Breathe has a great sense of authenticity—not surprising when the producer is Robin and Diana’s son, Jonathan, and the real Diana spent a lot of time on set with Claire Foy.

Breathe is confronting, and not always easy to watch, but it is an inspirational film, with liberal sprinklings of classic understated British humour. 


Highlight: The charismatic relationship between Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy
Red flags: Confronting blood scenes and philosophical issues


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