Bleecker Street/Participant Media
Director: Andy Serkis
Written by: William Nicholson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 10/4/17
Opens: October 13, 2017
The tsunami of self-help books churned out annually usually have nothing new to say, assuming you have read a few and absorb the key theme: that experiences make people happier than things. But recently, there was a new insight that may be difficult to believe. The suggestion is that severally handicapped people are suicidal at first, since after all, who wants to spend a good part of life blind, paralyzed, or without movement in more than one limb? But then, according to the happiness authors, the handicapped people not only accept their disabilities, but because of how they now value life, they may be happier than ever. Think about that when you see in veteran actor Andy Serkis’s freshman contribution as director with “Breathe.” The movie will probably be criticized for some sloppy sentimentality, the Hallmark critique that you can attach to many a poignant tale. But there is enough solid emotional content aside from the three-hanky output to merit a watch for all but the most unemotional folks.
Screenwriter William Nicholson could no doubt pen some Hallmark cards on the side. His emotional script, one that brings to the audience not only tears but also precious insights into the world of the severely disabled. His focus on a severe form of polio, the disease that affected Franklyn D. Roosevelt which cost him the use of his legs, is worse in the case of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield). Robin is totally paralyzed and has the use of only face and voice, wholly dependent on others especially his wife Diana (Claire Foy), and is blessed by a coterie of good friends and doctors who help him get over his initial depression. The result: he lives far more than the few months that the physicians would allot. The only movie figure whose disability was worse that Robin’s was Jean-Do, played by Mathieu Amalric in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a man whose massive stroke leaves him with the ability to move only his left eye. There’s always someone who is worse off that you and I.
Robin Cavendish was an actual person (see the Wikipedia article), a British subject who in 1958 came down suddenly with polio, a disease which announced its morbid presence as Robin loses a tennis match with a friend for the first time. (By the way, wasn’t the Salk vaccine first used five years earlier?) By the next day or two, he cannot move his legs, his arms, and would be unable to breathe lest he be attached to a respirator—a life-saving but ghastly tube which, if removed, or if the electric power were to shut down for just two minutes would leave him dead. Were it not for his wife Diana, he might have succumbed to terminal depression. Though Diana is advised by her mother that to stay with her husband would deny her a good life, she soldiers on, taking care of the poor man, getting him out of the hospital despite the pleas of the grumpy administrator. Given his friendship with roommate Paddy (David Wilmot) who bets five pounds that Robin would not survive the year, he is almost sorry to depart.
Ultimately this may be a story of how Robin helped to invent a chair, respirator on the bottom, to allow him to sit up and travel, but it’s mostly about his joyful relationship with his wife Diana, that rare person who would not only refuse to abandon her man to live live live! but who sincerely believes that Robin gave her “a good life” for a quarter century.
If your tears have not started flowing, Serkis makes sure to keep Bing Crosby’s crooning of Cole Porter’s song “True Love” in the soundtrack.
Rated PG-13. 117 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B