Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe, opened in the 2017 British Film Festival yesterday night. The film depicts the incredible story of a man overwhelmed by devastating circumstances who’s ultimately strengthened by the love and determination of his wife and those around him.
The film centers on the life of Robin Cavendish, a man who was paralysed from the neck down after contracting polio at the age of 25 who had to rely on a respirator and the care of nurses to keep him alive for the three months that were predicted he had left. Originally, he wanted to switch the machine off and end his life, but his determined wife, Diana, simply wouldn’t stand for it—stating, with this wonderfully blunt, matter-of-fact phrase: “You’re not dead, and that is that.” After Robin is broken out of hospital, what follows is an incredibly uplifting story about an unbelievable man and his wonderful loved ones, who advocate and aid people with disabilities, and try to live a fantastic life together.
At the beginning of the film Robin and Diana’s relationship, which was portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy respectively, felt incredibly rushed, as they had seemingly fallen in love with each other by the end of the opening credits—a love you don’t really get a feel for until Robin is diagnosed. Despite the rushed and shaky start to the pair’s dynamic I quickly found myself invested in their relationship as Garfield and Foy portrayed their love with such conviction and authenticity that respectfully paid tribute to the incredible bond Robin and Diana shared.
I’ll confess that I cried throughout this film but I never felt that utter despair that normally comes with films based on situations like the Cavendish’s. So, while I warn you that tissues may be necessary, I want you to know that your heart shouldn’t be too crushed by the end of it. Hopefully.
There is one especially heart-breaking scene though—when Robin visits a German hospital that cares for people of his condition. The patients’ bodies had been slotted in metallic walls, in a sealed and unnaturally lit room, leaving them with nothing but the mirrored ceiling to stare at. This was hard to watch. As soon as the hospital scene lit up the screen the audience stirred and a very audible gasp moved through the crowd. Everyone was on edge, as though they were there with Robin, experiencing this atrocity firsthand. To think that, not so long ago, people with disabilities were treated like sentient corpses to be stored in a catacomb of the living is a disturbing thought. If not for people like Robin, the lives of people with disabilities would have continued to be one of confinement.
Despite these darker moments media outlets have criticised the film for being too uplifting—if that is possible to believe. They complained about the parties and the adventures that the Cavendish’s embark on. But I ask of them this: people with disabilities can’t have parties or fun? They are missing the point of a film that celebrates the capabilities of people with disabilities—that they are people who deserve a full life, not in spite of their disability, but because of it! In the words of Robin Cavendish, “I don’t want to just survive, I want to truly live.”
Critics seemingly want this film to be less heartening. I don’t agree. Is there not already enough misery and anguish in cinema, and in the world? Let this film be what it is—a rare, feel-good film about the strength of love and the capabilities and rights of those with a disability. It brings hope to those struggling through the confirmation that there will be tough times, but there will also be amazing experiences that only you can have because you are different and move through the world differently.
Open your heart up to the extraordinary life of the Cavendish’s, take the time to acknowledge the progress they achieved for this world, embrace the sentiment of living every breath as though it were your last, and don’t be afraid to cry.
Breathe is screening across the British Film Festival circuit at Cinema Paradiso, Windsor Cinema and Luna on SX. View the full program here: https://www.palacecinemas.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BritFF17_Program_Web2.pdf