Motion capture legend Andy Serkis steps behind the camera for Breathe. His directorial debut is not a special effects juggernaut, but a warm and uplifting film about love conquering tragedy. Breathe is the remarkable true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield). He transcended debilitating paralysis with the steadfast support of his loving wife, Diana (Claire Foy). Their commitment to each other, and making life better for those similarly afflicted, is a joy to behold on screen.
The story begins in the late 1950’s with Robin Cavendish meeting Diana Blacker at a summer party. A tea merchant with moderate means, Cavendish was smitten by Blacker’s beauty. She was equally besotted by the handsome bachelor with a big smile and playful nature. Their whirlwind romance resulted in a quick marriage, much to the concern of her twin brothers (Tom Hollander); who had hoped for a wealthier suitor.
The fairy tale romance of Robin and Diana is upended by tragedy in 1959. While the couple was in Kenya attending to Robin’s business, he contracts polio and becomes paralyzed from the neck down. His condition so extreme, he needed a ventilator to breathe. She was near term pregnant with their son. Robin is confined to a hospital. His once shining personality turns suicidal. In their darkest hour, Diana refused to succumb to despair. With a newborn at her side, she challenged Robin and the doctors around him. Their lives together would not be shattered. Together they redefined possibility for the disabled. Showing the world that paralysis was not the end of life, but a different journey that can be just as rewarding.
Breathe is a tearjerker, but not a sad or depressing film. Andy Serkis does not wallow in the misery of polio. It is the exact opposite approach. He portrays the Cavendish family as strength and courage personified. Diana was not going to let Robin die, or waste away in a soul crushing environment. She did not buy into the politics of despair. Her resolve was the rising tide that lifted every boat. Serkis captures these moments with sensitivity. They embraced their situation and changed the nature of the game completely. Serkis does a fantastic job of accentuating the positive.
The leads are tremendous, but Claire Foy is truly exceptional. She carries this film with an Oscar worthy performance. I was aware of Foy and her bevy of awards for Netflix’s The Queen. I’ve never seen the show, but now understand why she is so well regarded. Andrew Garfield is in a wheelchair or a bed for ninety percent of this film. Most of his performance is in reaction to Foy’s. She is the rock in this story. Their relationship was honest. One of the best scenes in the film, akin to the classic Breaking the Waves, has Robin concerned about her physical needs. Foy’s response is so truthful and brilliant; you understand the depth of her talent.
Breathe has moments of levity that some might find too theatrical. I disagree; the humor is just as important as the drama. Life’s happy moments deserve as much screen time as the sad ones. Andy Serkis wants to raise your spirits, not drown them in bleakness. Robin and Diana Cavendish overcame his struggles together. Love conquers all is a story this pessimistic world needs. From Bleecker Street and STX Films, you’ll shed a few tears, but leave Breathe with a smile.