Breathe movie still of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy with baby


Breathe is based on the true story of a British couple’s heroic fight to transcend the limitations of a terrible disease – a fight that revolutionised medical treatment approaches. A sanitised but ultimately very moving adaptation.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: (rolanstein)
Opening Night of Perth’s 2017 Cunard British Film Festival kicks off at Cinema Paradiso on Thursday, October 26 with Breathe, the directorial debut of Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes).

The film is based on the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), left quadriplegic after being struck down suddenly by polio at 28, and his wife Diana (Claire Foy), who refused to accept the limitations imposed on them by the disease and the medical establishment of the 50s.

The early stages of the film briefly cover the couple’s courtship and marriage, soon after which they move to Kenya. Silhouetted in embrace against a spectacular sunset landscape backdrop (the work of multiple Academy Award winning cameraman Robert Richardson), Robin and a soon-pregnant Diana appear to have an idyllic life in front of them. They are part of a well-heeled set of wisecracking, tennis-playing, endlessly partying Brit ex-pats.

Then tragedy strikes. Virtually overnight, Robin is ravaged by polio and left a quadriplegic.

Unable to speak and hooked up to a breathing machine, he is flown back to England, confined to institutional care and given mere months to live. In defiance of an outraged head medico, Diana insists he be released home, and driven by love and hope takes on a daunting full-time nursing role.

The results are transformative, not only for Robin and his family, but ultimately for similarly afflicted patients – when inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) devises a wheelchair that incorporates a breathing machine, it gives Robin back his mobility and leads to a revolution in the care of paralyzed patients. (There is a ghastly scene of a 50s ‘state-of-the-art’ institution in Switzerland that shows patients vertically layered in rows, with only their heads protruding from white walls on either side of a spotless ward; presumably they were slid in and out of their slots for washing and feeding).

While Breathe is based on a doubtlessly inspirational real-life story, this is a sanitised adaptation featuring idealised lead characters (tellingly, perhaps, producer Jonathan Cavendish is the son of the real-life lead character prototypes). Diana, for example, is unrelentingly self-sacrificing, patient, loving and loyal. There must have been times of frustration and resentment for her, and the need for respite during her many years of care-giving, but none of this enters the frame here. As a character, she lacks complexity.

The same might be said of Robin. He spends much of the movie in somewhat implausibly resilient good cheer, always ready with a grin and a witty remark. That said, Andrew Garfield does a good job in the part considering his constraints, as does Claire Foy as Diana.

Indeed, the emotional whack the film delivers towards the end as Robin’s condition deteriorates is testimony to their performances, which have you caring about the characters and their heartbreaking situation. Indeed, I haven’t been so close to losing it in a film since I, Daniel Blake – and this despite being all-too-conscious of the unnecessarily emotionally manipulative tactics of the filmmakers (you know, flashbacks to happy times against a soundtrack of swelling strings etc).

Some shortcomings side, Breathe is well worth catching. Timely, too, in that it provides food for thought on the controversial topic of euthanasia.

Opening Night details:
Date: Thursday 26 October @ Cinema Paradiso, Perth

6.15pm: Pre-film reception. Includes Pimms cocktails, red and white wine, popcorn, British food from The British Catering Co and live music from Chris Ellers
7pm: Australian premiere of Breathe.
To purchase tickets go to:

Breathe features: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy
Director: Andy Serkis
Writer: William Nicholson
Runtime: 117 min

Screening details: For times and dates of screenings of Breathe and other films featuring in the 2017 Cunard British Film Festival, please see Session Times drop-down menu and a link to a downloadable PDF file of the entire program on the Luna Palace website. Films will be showing at Cinema Paradiso, Windsor Cinema and Luna On SX (Fremantle).

For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives

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