Starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. Rated PG.
“A bit of a bugger”: that’s how Andrew Garfield’s Robin Cavendish describes being paralyzed by polio at 28, unable to move from the neck down or breathe without a ventilator.
That blithe understatement is characteristic of this movie’s entire approach to what could have become a maudlin subject. And, no doubt, some are going to be put off by the rose-coloured glasses that producer Jonathan Cavendish—Robin’s son—uses to look back on the life of his father, a pioneer in the field of disability rights. But it also makes a hard story bearable, even enjoyable, in the face of extremely shitty circumstances—and God knows, from all evidence here, Cavendish loved a good party.
Faced with acting from the neck up for most of the movie, Garfield finds the right mix of courage and humour. Life is sweet before his Englishman is felled by polio: the woman of his dreams (Claire Foy) is pregnant with their first son; his job as a trader in Kenya has him flying biplanes over the savannah and playing tennis by his manse.
After polio hits, he’s put on a ventilator and given weeks to live. It’s one of the few moments we see real darkness in Breathe; Robin can barely look at his wife and wants to die.
From there, the biopic’s most compelling story is about the way paralysis was treated up until the 1970s and ’80s. It was unthinkable for someone to ever leave the hospital; society preferred to hide them away.
Luckily, back in England Cavendish has an almost impossibly plucky wife who steals him away from his medical prison into a crumbling but colourful country mansion. Even more fortuitous, one of his best friends is an inventor—one who cobbles together a wheelchair with a respirator attached, and, later, a wheelchair-friendly van.
With his new contraptions, Cavendish is unstoppable. And no disaster can taint this ever-eccentric family’s hopes: a road trip to Spain where his ventilator explodes turns into a fiesta with flamenco dancers.
The cheery approach catches us compellingly off guard: as Robin becomes an advocate for the disabled, fighting to get his wheelchairs out into the world to free others from their iron-lung hell, we’re suddenly exposed to the inhumane conditions everyone else like him is enduring, and it’s shocking.
Has the film put too much gloss on its subject’s life? Only Cavendish would be able to say for sure, but it’s unlikely he would have gone to all the trouble he did to live it if he wasn’t having a jolly good time.