Admittedly, I was unaware of the pioneering disability advocate Robin Cavendish prior to the release of Breathe, a much anticipated biopic starring Andrew Garfield. Thankfully, this important figure’s story is sympathetically portrayed with charm, decency and humour in Andy Serkis’s directorial debut.
The film brings to attention the life and achievements of one of Britain’s longest-lived responauts – Robin Cavendish (Garfield) who, at the age of 28, became paralysed from the neck down after contracting polio. Unable to breathe for himself, he was kept alive for almost forty years by a mechanical respirator.
We are first introduced to the handsome, sporty and awfully posh tea-broker in late 1950s England, where he meets and falls in love with the equally posh Diana, affectingly played by Claire Foy. The blissfully happy couple marry and relocate to Nairobi where Diana announces she is pregnant. Life was good and seemingly limitless.
Struck down only a year into their marriage, Robin and Diana are told curtly by doctors that he will survive no more than a few months. Confined to his hospital bed, Robin wished for death, mouthing to his brothers-in-law the words ‘let me die’. Depressed and resentful, he spits in the face of a hospital chaplain who suggests his suffering is part of God’s plan.
A helplessly devoted Diana asks what she can do, to which her husband responds, “Get me out of here”. Choosing to courageously risk death rather than submit to merely exist, hidden away as a patient for the remainder of his days, Robin was the first to pave the way for all other incarcerated disabled individuals. He determinedly pursued life, freedom, social integration and acceptance.
Opposing contemporary medical convention, the Cavendishes defiantly leave the hospital constraints in a blaze of glory, ignoring a disgruntled doctor who calls after them, “You’ll be dead in two weeks!”
Upon their exit they pass by two women who comment that it’s “not right” and “cruel” even, for “them” to be out and seen in public. This brief dialogue epitomizes the narrow-minded medical and social prejudice towards the severely disabled population, at the time.
The remainder of the film chronicles Robin’s fight to challenge such perceptions, whilst also pushing the boundaries of possibility. Not only does he succeed in changing attitudes, he was instrumental in making revolutionary practical advancements, thus effectively changing the lives of thousands of disabled people worldwide.
With the assistance of Oxford professor and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin develops a wheelchair that incorporates a ventilator, allowing him the freedom to venture beyond four walls, which he does with gusto.
A particularly funny episode involves a family holiday to Spain, during which Robin’s electrical respirator blows up, leaving him, Diana, their son and Diana’s brother stranded on a dusty layby. Not so funny, you might think. But the interaction that follows adds much needed light-relief.
While wife and son keep a jovial Robin breathing with the aid of a bag respirator, Tom Hollander’s character goes in search of a phone to call Teddy Hall back in England. The group then set up camp and attract a local crowd who party with them until Teddy makes a comical arrival on the scene.
As in life, there are moments of heart-breaking despair adding shade to the sunny optimism and whimsical jollity throughout. In one such scene, Diana presents photos of their former life in Nairobi to young son Jonathan who asks, “Can we go to Africa, Daddy?”
Unable to explain his plight to the youngster, he stifles tears of anguish as a watery-eyed Diana can say only, “I’m so sorry”. “So am I”, Robin softly replies.
Some years later, Robin teams up with Doctor Clement Aitken and together they tour Europe, demonstrating the custom made wheelchair. Particularly shocking is their visit to a German hospital where disabled patients are maintained in what looks like a futuristic, white-washed morgue. If you didn’t know this is a true story, you wouldn’t believe it.
The film, which on the whole is a little too rose-tinted, benefits from stark, impactful reminders of the ways disabled people were viewed, treated and constricted. However, it lacks detail and grit, failing to depict the daily grind of real life, the mental strain and tensions within relationships.
While the central performances are commendable, they fail to achieve the same conviction and reaction as those of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the comparable The Theory of Everything (2014).
Nevertheless, Breathe no doubt remains an inspiring tribute to the highly influential innovator Robin Cavendish and his triumph over adversity. His story has been realised with love, affection and sincerity, quite literally since the producer, Jonathan Cavendish, is his son.
*This article can also be found on the Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers website.*