4 stars
Director: Andy Serkis
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville
Duration: 118 mins
Class: 12
KRS Releasing Ltd

Breathe tells the true and beautifully inspiring story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a man who in 1958 was struck down by polio. Despite only being given months to live, he went on not only to live many, many more years, but also became a campaigner for people with disability.

Through his efforts and those of his wife Diana (Claire Foy) he was instrumental in the development of medical devices that helped improve the lives of paralysed people around the world.

The film is produced by Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, who commissioned writer William Nicholson to tell his father’s story. It is directed by Andy Serkis, the prolific actor and performance artist who with Cavendish runs production company The Imaginarium Studios, and who here steps behind the camera for the first time.

Nicholson’s narrative unfolds in a linear and effective manner, and Serkis tells the story with just the right balance of drama and lightness of touch. He avoids unnecessary histrionics as we chart the young couple’s relationship from their courtship, to their fun and adventure-filled years in Kenya, where Robin ran a tea-broking business until he was suddenly struck down by the devastating illness.

Thanks to sterling performances, characters are all exquisitely well-drawn

Paralysed from the neck down, Robin is transported back to the UK, and confined to hospital on a mechanical ventilator. He was pretty much left to die, a fate he was prepared for, but Diana would not let that happen. Against the advice of doctors he left hospital (or, escaped from it, as the film would have us believe) to live out his days in a rambling country house.

It is here that the nub of the story kicks in, as, content as he was at home with his wife and young son, Robin was, however, desperate to leave the confines of his bed. A flash of inspiration urged him to persuade inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to create a chair on wheels with a built-in respirator that would give him the freedom to move about he so badly craved.

This came to pass, with Diana’s help, that of her twin brothers, (both played by Tom Hollander) and Dr Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan), a prominent doctor who worked with people with disability. Before long, Cavendish had succeeded in not only improving his life, but that of thousands like him.

Jonathan Cavendish said he wanted to capture the “swashbuckling band of eccentrics” he knew in his childhood. Thanks to the sterling performances drawn by Serkis, especially from his two leads, characters are all exquisitely well-drawn.

With his every role, Garfield continues to stake his claim in the ranks of cinema’s current greats. To wit, his recent overtly flamboyant but remarkably authentic and moving performance in the National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America changed the minds of his most vociferous detractors, and he brings to bear his talent here. He eschews award-baiting traits of ‘characters with disability’ for a performance that is as authentic as it is affecting.

Garfield is immobile for the better part of the film. Yet, in his face, most notably his expressive eyes, his dulcet voice and his genuine emotions, lies an impressive performance charting an impressive course from Robin’s initial unimaginable physical and mental anguish, his desire to be left to die, his rehabilitation, and his discovery within himself of the strength needed not only to live a fulfilling life, but also to be of help for his peers.

Garfield is matched step for step by Foy, also an actor on the cusp of great things to come after coming to the world’s attention in acclaimed TV show The Crown. She shares an easy, unforced chemistry with Garfield as the unflappable, devoted, unwavering Diana taking everything in her stride as she nurses her husband and supports him in his quest.

Tom Hollander has double duty as Diana’s twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker, while Bonneville sparks as the inventor egged on by Cavendish to realise his vision.

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