Andy Serkis’ Breathe centres on the story of Robin Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield) who contracts polio in the late 1950s. A heartfelt story of overcoming adversity and prevailing love, the film takes a more personal tone when you know it was Robin Cavendish’s son – Jonathan – who produced the film as an homage to his parents.
One of the most important messages of the film is its acknowledgement of ableism. A danger of historical biographical dramas is the idea of progress. The film wants to scandalise the viewer by showing them the horrific treatment of severely disabled people in institutions in the mid-1900s. On the whole, I believe the film does a good job in forcing us to confront our own prejudices against people living with visible physical disabilities. More specifically, the film asks us to evaluate what we consider a life worth living.
Its stance is obvious; a life worth living is one filled with (heterosexual) love. The film is obsessed with the care Robin’s wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) provides for Robin. The film is also fascinated with changing technologies, which play a central role in its plot development. The film capitalises on the inherent sentimentality and heartbreak of Robin’s situation. While I am always wary of the manipulation that films try to enact on their viewers, I am also quite susceptible to them.
See the film for these reasons: the cinematography is beautiful. The camera pays particular attention to the landscape (that which we see of it) and produces awe-inspiring views. In it you’ll see billowing English fields, the burnt skies and red mountains of Nairobi, and the stunning mountain vistas of Spain. The emphasis Serkis places on the terrifying natural beauty is set in contrast to the fact that we remain, very much like Cavendish, immobile and stationary with the camera for most of the film. I also commend the editing; some of the most powerful scenes are minimalist and depicted without an extra-diegetic soundtrack so that Robin’s experience becomes an even more harsh reality that takes our breath away as well.
If – like me – you often turn to films for a good dissociative cry, then you’ve picked a good film (just bring tissues). If not, be prepared for a film that portrays the resiliency of the human spirit with graphic lachrymosity.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: STX Entertainment