Beware the movie that comes bearing the message ‘what follows is based on a true story’. The truth usually ends up playing second fiddle to the story telling and Breathe, the directorial debut from the former Gollum-inhabiting Andy Serkis, is a prime example of this.
Robin (Andrew Garfield) is a dashing young Sandhurst graduate, who leaves the Army and moves in to the tea-broker business, in the latter-half of the 1950s. Playing cricket one day, he claps eyes on the stunning, yet reputedly unattainable, Diana Blacker (Claire Foy). Immediately smitten, he smashes the ball for six, she’s duly impressed and, voila, we have a pair of star-crossed lovers.
They marry, take-off to Africa, safari a bit, and pretty quickly Diana gets pregnant. Then, when things really couldn’t get any better, life pulls the rug out from under their feet in a big way. Robin gets struck down in the prime of his youth with polio and is given just three months to live.
He wants to die, but she won’t let him. He can’t bear to be imprisoned in hospital, so she helps him escape. Then, over the years a professor-cum-amateur-inventor friend (played by everyone’s nice guy, Hugh Bonneville) conjures up various physical aids, which enable Robin to live more independently.
In the 1970s, Robin encounters ‘the rule-breaking’ Dr Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan) of the Disability Research Foundation, and he finds himself thrust in to the limelight as a leading advocate for a generation of ‘responauts’ segregated from society in medical institutions up and down the country. Robin even gets to takes on the might of the scientific community in (the then West) Germany over their segregationist attitudes towards severely disabled people. The plotting and characterisations really aren’t much more nuanced than that, though. It’s a very linear, simplistic tale.
And there you have (apart from an ending which presents an equally simplistic take on the ‘the right to die’ debate): a ‘plucky-crip’ story consisting of one-dimensional characters, heaps of sentiment and a smattering of madcap comic moments.
We have no information on how this apparently no-income family support themselves financially over a number of decades, apart from a brief mention to making some money on stocks and shares. Other than wanting to die and then discovering the will to live, we learn little of Robin’s thoughts, feelings and desires as a disabled man/husband/father. And, nothing is said of how Diana miraculously manages to cope with being a round-the-clock carer for years on end. And, always looking so good! As a film that has the subject of becoming, and being, disabled at its heart, it has surprisingly little to say that resonates in a contemporary context.
But, we have to bear in mind, this movie was produced by Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana, and is, therefore, a very personalised take on history, or historical fiction on a personal-level. And, what do we want from ‘historical fiction’ but an escapist story safely cocooned in the past, which rather neatly sums-up Breathe.
Do I think Garfield will win an Oscar for his performance? No. He could well be nominated though, as an able-bodied actor inhabiting a disabled character’s body is always viewed as such a wonderful achievement.
CAST: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Stephen Mangan, Hugh Bonneville
DIRECTOR: Andy Serkis
WRITER: William Nicholson
DURATION: 117 MINS