European films

Film review: Breathe – Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy in poignant romance about pioneering polio survivor

Director Andy Serkis has produced a lighthearted and touching film that celebrates the achievements of Robin Cavendish, a man who pioneered a revolutionary mobile ventilator system that would improve the lives of people with serious disabilities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 6:01pm

3/5 stars

The life and achievements of Robin Cavendish, one of Britain’s longest-surviving “responauts”, is the subject of Breathe, the well-intentioned directorial debut from actor Andy Serkis.

After contracting polio at the age of 28, Robin was paralysed from the neck down and required a mechanical ventilator to breathe. Doctors gave him just months to live, but together with his wife Diana and friend Teddy Hall, he pioneered a revolutionary mobile ventilator system that kept him alive for decades and would improve the lives of people with serious disabilities immeasurably.

Andrew Garfield does an impressive job of humanising Robin, through his highest and lowest moments, in a performance limited solely to using his head. Most of the dramatic heavy-lifting falls to Claire Foy, the breakout star of Netflix’s The Crown , who proves easily up to the task. Comic relief is provided by Tom Hollander, as Diana’s bumbling twin brother.

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Produced by Cavendish’s son, John, Breathe often runs the risk of presenting a rose-tinted account of Robin’s life. But what sets the film apart from the formula of recent disability dramas like The Theory of Everything is its determination to remain resolutely lighthearted as much as circumstances permit.

Frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson gleefully send-up the defiantly British stiff-upper-lip mentality, while eulogising Robin’s resolutely optimistic demeanour. While at times heavy-handed, Serkis’ first swing at directing is efficient and effective.

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It is also somewhat ironic to note that, like Cavendish, Serkis came to prominence championing a revolutionary technology: while not aiding the mobility of people with disabilities, he has brought a crucial human touch to otherwise lifeless, computer-generated creations in blockbusters from The Lord of the Rings to Planet of the Apes.

Breathe opens on November 30

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