The winner of the 2017 Heavy-Duty Tissues Award can now be announced. The beautifully produced British film Breathe (2017) is an inspirational bio-pic based on the short life of Robin Cavendish who was the longest survivor of polio in the pre-vaccination era. That description does little to prepare viewers for what is a multi-layered period drama, with themes about assisted dying, disability rights, medical innovation, personal triumph over adversity, and the all-conquering power of a woman’s love. Amongst all of this are several good cries.
Set in the 1950s, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a dashing young tea-broker, met the love of his life Diana (Claire Foy) at a cricket game. Before long, they are courting, married, and set for an idyllic yet modest life together until Robin is struck down by the paralysis of polio. At the time, the only prognosis was a short life tied to a hospital respirator. For the active Robin death was preferable to being tethered to an artificial lung, but Diana would have none of it. Close friend and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) pioneered a wheel-chair with a battery powered respirator that freed Robin from a life inside hospital, despite advice that he would not survive outside for more than two weeks. The story traces their adventurous lives together, including a trip to Africa and a disability conference in Germany. Perhaps the film’s most disturbing image is a German hospital where polio victims are laid out in morgue-like boxes, kept alive only by mechanical respirators.
It is impossible to imagine this film being bearable without Andrew Garfield’s extraordinary performance, supported by Claire Foy in the equally demanding role of his wife. Garfield possesses one of cinema’s most expressive faces which he deploys to full effect as the mostly prostrated polio patient who can only speak a short sentence at a time between breaths. From the depths of wanting to die to the joyful heights of feeling his baby son’s skin against his face, Garfield communicates in a facial sign language that says more than the words of fine orators. Some viewers will fairly believe that Claire Foy is the film’s real star. Where Garfield is an emotional roller coaster, Foy is a powerhouse of defiant strength who refuses to surrender to polio or to her husband’s wish to die. If the film can be faulted, it may be in its polite sanitisation of what it means to depend on others for every bodily function.
This story is more about unconditional love than heroism. Robin was surrounded by caring and talented friends, including the inventor of the respirator wheelchair that gave him freedom. Most importantly, he had a wife whose stubborn loyalty forced him to push on where others may have given up. Robin became a high-profile disability spokesman because fate gave him the opportunity to advocate for others. This warm-hearted story illuminates a little-known episode of history that has been consigned to the archives of medical science. Take extra tissues, but you will leave feeling inspired.
Director: Andy Serkis
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville