Breathe | Film Review

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.

The real Robin Cavendish with son Jonathan

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.*


You might also be interested to read:

My Interview with disabled actor Daniel Baker, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

My Interview with Emmerdale Actor James Moore, who has cerebral palsy

The Girl on the Train: British Book vs. American Adaptation

I’ve always been a bit of a movie buff. Though I enjoy a good book every now and then, I’m not a big reader.

Every year, I try to encourage myself to read more. But sometimes, after a long day, it’s so much easier to watch the film adaptation.

When I caught the trailer for the recently released film, The Girl on the Train, I decided to read the best-seller before allowing myself to see the much anticipated film.

Warning: This review contains spoilers!


Plot:

Hawkins’ psychological thriller is narrated by three women: the eponymous Girl, 32 year-old Rachel Watson; Megan and Anna.

Rachel is a reckless alcoholic who divorced Tom following his affair with the beautiful Anna, whom he later married and fathered a daughter with. The Watsons now live in the house he once shared with Rachel, while she is forced to rent a room in the home of her friend Cathy.

Every day, Rachel takes the train from Ashbury to London, claiming she’s commuting for work when, unbeknownst to Cathy, she lost her job due to her excessive drinking.

Her days, like her commute, represent the typical monotony of life as an alcoholic. A dependence on gin and tonic in particular leads to blackouts, aggression, injury and memory loss.

Rachel’s daily journey passes Blenheim road in Witney where she lived with Tom, offering her a passengers’ insight into his new life. Seemingly obsessed with her former husband, she continually harasses him and Anna to the extreme; calling and even visiting their residence unannounced.

A few houses down from the Watsons, live Megan and Scott Hipwell, an attractive young couple on whom Rachel becomes fixated. She watches them from the train and invents for herself an idealised version of their life, investing in them, in their love for each other and in their perfect marriage.

So, when Rachel sees Megan kissing a man other than her husband, her illusion is shattered. Angry and disappointed, she spends the night binging, then wakes in a bloody and bruised state with no memory of the night before.

It soon transpires that Megan Hipwell is missing, and having seen Rachel drunkenly stumbling around the area on the night in question, Anna reports her to the police. Rachel denies any knowledge of Megan yet feels instinctively that she is somehow involved, and so she conducts a self-led investigation.

She later decides to report having witnessed Megan with the unidentified man, suggesting they were having an affair and that he must therefore be involved in her disappearance. She meddles further, contacting and lying to Scott about having known Megan, and learning that the man in question is Kamal Abdic, Megan’s therapist.

Disturbed by her blackout and intent on piecing together the series of events surrounding what evolves to be a murder; Rachel finds a much needed purpose.

It emerges that Megan was pregnant at the time of her death, though neither Scott nor Kamal are the father.

Anna, despondent at the persistence of Rachel’s presence and harassment, begins to question Tom’s reluctance to report his ex-wife to the police. She uncovers a spare mobile phone belonging to Megan and realises that her husband, like Kamal, had also been having an affair with her.

Increasingly able to certify her own memories, Rachel not only unveils facts about the night of Megan’s disappearance, but also about her former life with Tom. A skilled manipulator, he had blindsided Rachel for years, causing her to believe his accusations and blame herself.

When unable to conceive, he betrayed her by sleeping with Anna, and then proceeded to cheat on Anna with Megan who became pregnant with his child.

Rachel seeks to warn Anna at the family home, but Tom returns and a violent confrontation ensues, the result of which sees both Rachel and Anna participate in Tom’s death.

We learn that what Rachel had seen that night in her drunken stupor was Megan getting into Tom’s car. Thinking initially that it was Anna and not Megan, due to their uncanny resemblance, Rachel called after her and incurred her injuries when Tom approached and attacked her. Following this, the car drove away to obscure woodland where Megan informed Tom of her pregnancy. Unable to pressure her into pursuing an abortion, Tom murdered and hurriedly buried her in a shallow grave.

My Thoughts:

A first-person narrative told from the point of view of three interwoven women, I personally found the novel a fairly easy read.

Each chapter is voiced by Rachel, Anna or Megan, and as such, the perspective changes considerably, along with the dates; posing the only minor challenge for the reader.

At times, the pace was a little slow and drawn out, mainly throughout Rachel’s chapters, though this serves to represent the drudgery of her purposeless existence. She’s a divorced, unemployed, alcoholic and like her pointless daily commute into London, her life is headed nowhere.

However, the pace and tension picked up substantially in the final third of the book. A dark and dramatic conclusion rooted in the realms of reality will maintain your attention and keep you enthralled to the last.

A heavily character driven plot, every individual we meet is flawed and hard to really care about. I sympathized with Rachel’s downfall; her life having disintegrated following a failed IVF attempt and her husband’s affair.

After Tom marries the much more beautiful Anna, with whom he has a daughter, Rachel completely lets herself go. Reason enough to reach for the bottle, or in this case a can of gin and tonic!

But as her obsession with Megan’s case unfolds, her increasingly extreme actions stem from pure desperation and loneliness.

Her erratic behaviour and confused recollections cause both she and the reader to suspect that she could be the killer. Nonetheless, I have to admit that by just over half way through, I correctly judged that Tom was the guilty party. It seemed to me that any of the other characters would have been too obvious.

Inevitable comparisons have been made with its recent predecessor, American author Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Though understandable, The Girl on the Train, or more accurately, the woman on the train, is a much less sensationalised psychological thriller.

Furthermore, it is a thoroughly British psychological thriller touching on themes such as voyeurism, addiction, the psyche and even Feminism.

Movie Adaptation:

Directed by American, Tate Taylor, the film, starring British actress Emily Blunt, is set in New York as opposed to London.

Blunt, as Rachel, travels the Hudson line to Manhattan, and leafy Westchester takes the place of the Victorian town of Witney.

We see our anti-heroine drinking in Grand Centrals iconic Oyster Bar rather than raiding an off license for pre-mixed cans of gin and tonic, as in the novel. Even Central Park is featured, specifically the Untermeyer Fountain and its sculpture of three dancing maidens; a physical representation of the three female voices.

Consequently, the stop-start nature of London’s rail works and the sense of hustle and bustle is lost in the film’s glossy New York scenery.

Whereas I had envisaged a grittier, greyer world more reminiscent of ITV’s Broadchurch; Tate Taylor’s reimagining presents a moodier, more sexualised James Patterson vibe.

The characters in the film are underdeveloped and their traits and actions are never fully explored. There’s far too much ‘Hollywood’ posing and, as a result, they lack dimension, humanity and are less sympathetic than Hawkins’ inventions.

I think, had I not read the book first, I would have struggled to follow the events as depicted on the screen, since so much detail has been casually brushed over.

For example, Megan’s dead brother Ben, whom she loved dearly and made future plans with, is briefly mentioned only once.

As much as I love Emily Blunt, she is a far cry from Hawkins’ creation. She certainly doesn’t have the physicality to portray an overweight, bloated, lacklustre binge drinker. As Hawkins herself says, she is far too beautiful.

Blunt retains her English accent, presumably to hark back to the story’s original setting. Then again, perhaps it was just easier than adopting the Manhattan drawl?

That aside, Blunt gives her all and offers a convincing portrayal of a woman on the edge. Hers is by far the standout performance. For the most part, all characters are well cast, though some such as Edgar Ramirez who plays Kamal Abdic are somewhat underused.

Overall, I’d recommend saving your money on a cinema ticket. While it’s worth a watch, I feel this was a missed opportunity.

Had the filmmakers followed Hawkins lead more closely in terms of tone, setting and character focus, it could have received the same applause as David Fincher’s Gone Girl.

By all means indulge in the novel, you won’t be disappointed! If, like Rachel, you are a daily commuter, maybe even consider reading it on the train for added effect.