The ‘jolly hockeysticks’ depiction of England that we’ve seen in films like Notting Hill gets a retro airing in this grace-under-pressure tale of a man afflicted with polio. He was the longest living ‘responaut’, i.e. a person depending on a machine to breathe.
The main problem with the film from an ethical point of view is that he decides to have his life terminated when the polio gets too bad. After uttering a ‘yea’ to life for three-quarters of the running time, in the last quarter the film gives a gleeful endorsement of euthanasia that seems out of sync with the foregoing.
Or is it? When you think about it, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) – an African army captain who contracts the disease at the age of 28 and is paralysed from the neck down – has adopted an ‘if you want to get out, give a shout’ attitude from the outset.
With the help of his adoring wife Diana (Claire Foy) he escapes from the confines of his hospital bed to be treated by her at home using a plug-in respirator. Later on she builds one into a wheelchair. He even gets on a plane. “Did you remember to pack my parasol?” asks the man who was given up for dead not too long before.
As time goes on his condition deteriorates. Life at home becomes as unbearable as the hospital once was. When he’s informed he’s in danger of choking on his own blood he decides to have his life terminated by a “progressive” doctor friend.
From now on we’re in tearjerker territory. “Thank you for choosing life,” Diana whispers to him towards the finale but at this point he’s really choosing death. Up until now he’s resisted the temptation of suicide – or Diana talks him out of it.
For Garfield the film is yet another opportunity for him to show us how much suffering he can absorb and still turn on a smile. After Hacksaw Ridge I needed a tranquilliser with all the bloodshed but he’s still shedding it here – mostly from the throat this time. (For your next film, Andrew, please get a healthy theme).
Tom Hollander plays a double role as a pair of twins. (Is this what’s known as double dutch?) Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville is an inventor dispensing mirth and platitudes. Diana Rigg (remember her from The Avengers?) gets a blink-and-you-miss-her cameo. She’s almost unrecognisable. Alas, what time does.
Breathe is based on a real life story. It’s the directorial debut of Andy Serkis and is produced by Cavendish’s son. It’s a creditable historical document. One scene in a German hospital – with just the polio patients’ heads visible – is like a dystopian nightmare.
Cavendish died in 1994. Like Christopher Reeve, he cared deeply about his fellow man. He helped many polio sufferers live outside hospitals like he did but when life got too hard he played God.