I’ve always loved a good biopic. As a student of history, I find it’s a great way to bring the past to life and to learn about important people and events that may otherwise be forgotten. While I enjoy films which tell the story of famous historical figures, my favorites are always those about ordinary men and women who face extraordinary circumstances with dignity and persistence. I love learning about the stories of these everyday heroes. Inspired by the life of Robin Cavendish and his wife Diana, Breathe is one such film.
The Life of Robin Cavendish
If you have never heard of Robin Cavendish before, you aren’t the only one. If not for how he lived with a severe disability, most likely nobody ever would have. In 1958, two years into his marriage to Diana, Robin contracted polio and was paralyzed from the neck down. Initially given less than a year to live, Robin indicated his wish to die. But Diana refused to allow this. She entreated him to live for the sake of their son.
Robin gradually improved to the point that he could swallow and speak. But for the rest of his life he was dependent on the use of artificial respirators to help keep him alive. (3) Eventually, Diana and some hospital staff literally broke him out of the hospital against his doctor’s advice. At this time, no one with his level of disability had ever been survived outside of a hospital.
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Over the next thirty years of his life, Robin and Diana became champions for disabled people. They also helped inspire and pioneer ways to integrate people like himself into everyday society. Some of these ideas include a mobile wheelchair with a built-in respirator, a hydraulic chair lift for his van, as well as equipment that allowed him to perform simple tasks by moving his head.
He was also instrumental in creating the first list of people who used iron lungs as well as in fundraising efforts to improve their quality of life. In their personal lives, the two pushed Robin’s boundaries, living as adventurously as possible, while raising their son and remaining committed to each other. (3)
Breathe Film Review
For a film which depicts the life of a severely disabled man, Breathe is a remarkable celebration of life and love. At first, I was concerned that this movie might be a bit of a downer. But from the opening scenes of the English countryside scored to an upliftingly gorgeous piece of music, I knew I would be proven wrong.
There are many things to appreciate about Breathe, not the least of which is the absolutely stunning cinematography. With sweeping vistas of England and South Africa (where the Cavendishes lived at the time of his diagnosis), to the more intimate spaces of their home and personal spaces, Breathe is a visual pleasure. The beginning wide open spaces allude to the couple’s adventurous lifestyle prior to diagnosis. Immediately following, the tight spaces of Robin’s hospital bed portray his new highly restricted reality. Once Robin chooses to live, to thrive not just survive, this is shown in the expanding spaces of his new life.
As I’ve already mentioned, another highlight of Breathe is the film’s score. Though brief, at only five songs, the impact it has on the scenes is powerful. My favorite, of course, is the opening instrumental number. A close second is the song, True Love. It accompanies a perfectly happy moment early in Robin and Diana’s marriage and then again to close out the film. Classic film buffs may recognize True Love as the song Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly sang together in the film High Society. And it is their version used in Breathe, chosen because it was a personal favorite of Robin and Diana.
Of course, it goes without saying that the film’s success mainly rides on the shoulders of its talent. Andrew Garfield does an amazing job portraying not only Robin’s physical limitations but his creative mind and undaunted spirit. Garfield is no stranger in tackling character roles and apparently stayed in character even when cameras weren’t filming.
‘The amazing thing was that everyone around Robin became his body,’ Garfield said. ‘He became the mastermind behind all this invention.’ (1)
Everybody’s favorite Queen Elizabeth (The Crown), Claire Foy, takes the role of Diana and makes it her own. It would be easy to create a portrayal of the sacrificial or dutiful wife or to veer into overly sentimental territory. Instead, Foy shows a woman whose commitment has nothing to do with sacrifice or duty but everything to do with love. Diana begins the film as a popular, privileged young lady and ends it as a woman of strength and resourcefulness while still retaining her sense of hope and adventure.
Fans of BBC dramas will also be thrilled to see a double dose of Tom Hollander as Diana’s twin brothers who help in her quest to provide normalcy for Robin. Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey portrays family friend Teddy Hall. Robin and Teddy collaborate towards the invention of the wheelchair which gives Robin greater mobility.
Teddy Hall was also a scientific genius in his own right. One of the highlights of this story is how Robin and Diana cultivated a community of friends like her brothers and Teddy. This community was almost as important to Robin’s quality of life as his love for Diana and their son. But it wasn’t a one-way street. Everyone who knew Robin received the benefits of his friendship.
One talent behind the screen includes the couple’s son Jonathan Cavendish. He was so inspired by his parents’ love story that he worked hard to bring it to the screen. He collaborated with actor and first-time director Andy Serkis to fulfill this dream. From the quality of this production, one would never guess that this was Serkis’ directorial debut.
While Breathe inspires with Robin’s story about thriving in spite of disability, at heart it is a love story and one tenderly told. From beginning to end the beating heart of the film is the connection and commitment between Robin and Diana. Diana in particular really lived out the portion of the marriage vows which promise “for better or worse.”
“Their’s was a great love story which created the victory of optimism over despair. My father had lost control of his life, along with his movement and independence, but with my mother’s love and willpower, he was released from his captivity and enabled so many severely disabled people to escape in the same way. We all need films that give us hope.” (2)
From the first to the last, Breathe was not only a pleasure but an inspiration to watch. Robin and Diana refused to allow his physical limitations to limit their life. They constantly pushed the boundaries of what anyone thought possible. Thus from receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, they progressed from the confinement of a hospital bed to the freedom of their own home, to hitting the road and eventually traveling by plane.
The film honestly depicts some of the challenges and setbacks they faced, including how they handled intimacy within their marriage. But through it all, they faced them together as a team with unlimited doses of hope and optimism.
Not only did they desire to create a full life for themselves, they also fought to improve the conditions for others like Robin. One extremely moving scene shows Robin addressing a room full of medical personnel comparing their hospitals and treatments to prison. He challenges them concerning their patients, “I implore you, you go back to your hospitals and you tell your disabled patients that they too can truly live. You all have this power to open the gates and set them free.” And with the living, breathing example of what is possible in front of them, the whole room applauds.
As a whole, I believe Breathe is almost a perfect film. The one negative for me is the last medical decision Robin makes. Even today, the moral and ethical ramifications of such a choice are still up for debate. Yet, even if I can’t personally agree with Robin’s choice, I can understand it, especially since the film presents it with such compassion.
There are many stories and films which motivate, inspire or challenge us. But few are quite as special or memorable as Breathe. This film’s beauty matches the beauty of its real-life inspirations Robin and Diana Cavendish and is a magnificent tribute to their courage and love. This just may be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It is certainly one which I encourage everyone to watch.
Content: Breathe is rated PG-13 for its’ discussion and portrayal of adult issues, some intense medical scenes as well as mild language.
Where to Watch: Stream on Amazon Prime. Rent or buy on Amazon, GooglePlay, iTunes, and VUDU.
Photo Credit: Bleecker Street
Featured Photo: David Bloomer
Have you seen Breathe? What are your thoughts on this romantic biopic? Let me know in the comments.
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