BFI LFF: Breathe (2017)

Opening the BFI London Film Festival, Andy Serkis’s debut as a director is the inspiring drama Breathe, a very moving true story.

Every Breath You Take

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Breathe is a moving true story that’s both a well-made film and such an obvious labour of love that it’s hard to criticise without feeling churlish. In the 1950s, it’s love at first sight as dashing Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets beautiful Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) at an idyllically shot village cricket match, where Robin wallops the cricket ball into the tea table, smashing the teacups – “Sorry!”

He’s vital, athletic, vigorous, a good sport, has a good sense of humour, is popular and a successful tea broker in Kenya, where he whisks Diana off to a comfortable expatriate colonial life. They seem like the luckiest couple in the world until Robin is suddenly struck down and paralysed with polio. Unable to move from the neck down, he can’t even breathe for himself. He will need to be kept alive by a respirator for the rest of his life which, according to the unsympathetic hospital consultant, will only be a couple of months anyway.

The tragedy could have been crushing and life thereafter in a hospital ward is like being in prison for Robin. Claire shows tough love to make Robin want to carry on living and see their new-born son Jonathan grow up. Against medical opposition, she arranges to spring him from hospital and bring him to their new home, a shabby stately pile in the country she has managed to buy for £7,000.

The couple won’t accept defeat and dedicate themselves to finding innovative ways to improve Robin’s quality of life, such as devising a wheelchair with its own respirator, with the help of their vintage-wine-loving inventor friend Professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), and to make these improvements available also to the thousands of other polio-sufferers in the world with the help of rule-breaking, disability-campaigning doctor (a floppy-haired Stephen Mangan). And against all received advice, Robin lives decades longer than anyone with his disability has ever done.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson shoots the undulating English countryside that Robin misses when confined to hospital in lush greens, and the Africa that he longs for is in warm ochres and gold. An ambitious holiday in Spain that tests the limits of Robin’s innovations is shot in fiery night-time colours when a travel mishap on a remote road turns into an impromptu fiesta.

In excellent though somewhat linear performances, Garfield and Foy deal with their personal catastrophe with stiff upper lips, understated humour and indomitable decency and devotion. Foy is consistently patient and loving, and Garfield does well to convey the depth of his emotions using only limited facial movement and a constrained voice. Among a bevy of seemingly perpetually helpful friends, a digitally duplicated Tom Hollander provides light relief as Diana’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee twin brothers and Diana Rigg makes a cameo appearance as a wealthy dowager.

In fact Breathe is producer Jonathan Cavendish’s own parents’ story, and he is represented in it himself as a child and young adult (Dean-Charles Chapman). It must have been a very emotionally demanding film for him to make. Perhaps there are signs of Jonathan’s uniquely personal involvement in the delicacy with which his parents’ relationship is treated, and in the way their unchanging steadfast love for each other shows through the film like lettering through rock. It’s reinforced by the soundtrack of Bing Crosby’s True Love.

Breathe is actor Andy Serkis’s first film as a director and for someone so innovative as a physical performer (Gollum, The Lord of the Rings) it’s told in a surprisingly conventional way, though none the worse for that. It’s well meant and well made, an inspiring story about laughing in the face of adversity and reconstructing lives, with a straightforward screenplay by William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).

Though it’s hard not to think of Breathe without remembering The Theory of Everything, also shown at the London Film Festival three years ago, which has a similar theme of a couple coping with living with disability. Hawkings, however, is a celebrity in a way that Robin Cavendish never was, and its protagonists’ relationship develops very differently. And interestingly the Festival this year is also screening Stronger, another inspirational story, but of someone who did not set out to be inspirational but has it thrust upon him – it’s another very moving story of the fight-back of Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Of Breathe, Serkis says that we are living in a world where catastrophes are liable to happen, and we need inspirational stories to help us struggle through and make life better for each other. Both Breath and Stronger are impossible to watch without shedding many tears.

Breathe is the Opening Film of the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 4 October 2017 and also screens on 5 October 2017.

Join the discussion