The story of Robin Cavendish, who became an icon for people with disabilities, is one worth telling, but Andy Serkis stumbles in trying to find all the right notes in his directorial debut. Serkis tries with seemingly good intentions to hit the beats of Cavendish’s life, but the results are jumbled—Breathe is a film that seems as though it should be somber and tragic but becomes lost in its own sense of wonder at times. Perhaps Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, who acted as producer on this tribute film, wanted to portray his dad in a tone that wasn’t as dark as his life’s story may sound. But while the film does have its effective bursts of joy, it undercuts the more prominent themes of the remarkable story.
Breathe breezily sets ups the relationship between Robin (Andrew Garfield) and his wife, Diana (The Crown’s Claire Foy), to get to the juicy center of Robin’s disability. Everything seems to be going great for them in the early part of their relationship: they hit it off quickly at a party, get married, take off to Africa for a vacation, and decide to have children. As soon as Diana gets pregnant, however, Robin is stricken with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without a respirator, he wants to give up on life. But his wife refuses to let him end it all, and some confidence is restored when Robin finally becomes able to speak again. Diana loves him, to be sure, but we never see enough of those early years to really feel the level of unwavering commitment she shows from this point.
Robin desperately wants to leave the hospital, but the staff want to keep him, questioning whether he can live at home in his present state—a polio victim with his extent of paralysis has never left to live at home. But Robin aims to prove the snooty doctors wrong, and after some convincing from the nurses, Diana stages an operation to wheel her husband out of the hospital and into his new home. This escape sequence, strangely, is staged as a bouncy heist plot with a jazzy score. Was this necessary? It seems like such a risky move would be more inspiring without the whimsical dressing.
The rest of the film proceeds with Robin coming up with ideas to be more mobile and his family and friends helping him become better integrated into society, though the inspirations for some of these devices are a little odd. Robin watches his little boy push a pram and gains the idea that he should be placed in a chair with wheels—wow, almost like some sort of wheelchair. A special chair is developed that can keep Robin upright and house his electronic respirator. He shocks the doctors when he returns to the hospital and is pushed into the polio ward by Diana, proudly boasting the people crippled from the neck down can still live outdoors.
As a biopic produced by the real-life subject’s family, Breathe runs into the same problems as films like The Theory of Everything, refusing to focus on the more difficult aspects of such a story. Any scene that seems as though it could explore some harsh plight of Robin’s new state is quickly glazed over with a laugh and a more pleasant scene. There’s the inevitable point when Robin’s machine is accidentally unplugged by the family dog while Diana is somewhere else in the house; she finds him before he suffocates to death and turns the machine back on, only for him to comment that was an interesting experience. It seems like it would be a little more than intriguing, but the movie won’t harp too much on that. It’d much rather showcase Robin’s chipper smile among friends with parties and outings.
The blanker spots of Robin’s life are also filled in with comical asides. At one point, he is adventurous enough to go on a trip with his family to Spain. A shorted fuse in the car blows out Robin’s respirator, and he has to be given air through a manual respirator. While the family waits for the proper technician to make it to their roadside location, the locals take an interest in Robin’s plight and stage a party around him. Nothing much else happens on this trip to Spain aside from songs, dances, and cheers when Robin’s respirator is finally fixed. It felt as though this could’ve been the entire film.
Breathe spends so much time trying to have fun with Robin that by the time it reaches its third act, which focuses on challenging the medical community over how it treats disabled people, it comes off like a different movie entirely. I couldn’t help but feel that there should be a more massive impact when Robin attends a disabilities conference in Germany and is wheeled into a sterile facility where disabled people are housed in an efficient prison of containment. Robin later delivers a persuasive speech to medical professionals about helping disabled people integrate more into society, but again, it feels like another movie entirely. His words come off as typical for an inspirational movie speech, complete with the swelling music.
The film does have its moments of effective somberness, and there’s a cathartic experience as (spoiler?) Robin makes the tough decision in his twilight years to end it all before he gets worse. But we don’t see the uglier moments. As his condition worsens, we only catch brief glimpses of his bleeding episodes, when he starts to drown in his blood. It seems like this would be a more critical and crucial aspect to emphasize Robin’s dire situation, but the movie seems almost fearful of approaching such material. Andrew Garfield does a dignified job portraying Robin as an ever-chipper chap, but he’s still working with a script that could give him something more to say in the lesser moments and maybe more subtlety in the overly dramatic moments.
When Roger Ebert had a documentary filmed after he lost his jaw and his ability to eat, he was proud that the filmmakers included the uncomfortable footage of him trying to filter food through a tube into his throat. It’s gross, but Ebert wanted to let us know everything about his condition. Breathe seems to take the safer, softer approach to Robin Cavendish’s life, opting to showcase his brighter spots and gloss over his bleaker ones, the drama almost an afterthought.
This is a film that will play well for moms seeking an easy tearjerker that’s not too savage, but it will likely perplex those who wanted to learn details about Robin’s life that they couldn’t look up in an encyclopedia. How am I supposed to respond to an ending that cuts from Robin’s heartfelt death to some somberly sweet archival footage to a bouncy credit sequence with fantastical music? I guess you could write off this fluctuation of tones as being all-encompassing of Robin’s life, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that life isn’t this mushy, even for someone as positive as Robin Cavendish.