Andy Serkis is renowned for his acting in films such as The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, but he takes a step back with Breathe. His first directorial effort, it is starkly contrasted with the performance capture-heavy films he has previously been involved with. Regardless, this is a very impressive debut and shows Serkis has plenty more to offer.
Serkis delves into polio for second time after his role as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Now behind the camera, he tells the incredible true story of the man who sparked a change in the way the disabled were treated, from prisoners to the free. Andrew Garfield plays that man, Robin, an ever-jolly 28 year old who seemingly has it all; a beautiful wife in Diana (Claire Foy), a child on the way, a great job in the thriving African tea business and a large social circle.
His life is turned upside down when, whilst working in Kenya, he contracts polio, a disease all but wiped out in the Western World two years prior with the widespread use of Jonas Salk’s remarkable vaccine. Polio, for those unaware, paralyses the body from the neck down, with sufferers unable to breathe without apparatus. Garfield channels an entire body’s acting through just his head in a marvellous portrayal with Robin’s real life wife noting that he “even had the twinkle in his eye.”
The first act takes us on a breakneck journey, introducing us to Robin and every character and event that will influence the remaining running time of the film. This furious pace inhibits the emotional connection with Robin’s suffering, the scenes showing his depression and wishing for death initially after he receives the disease should tug at the heartstrings but if it wasn’t for Garfield’s performance, it would have fallen entirely flat.
Thankfully the pace slows to a cantor from here on in. Diana, refusing to let her husband die locked away from the world, decides to break him out, much to the fury of the doctor who shouts “he’ll be dead in two weeks!” With the effort of a merry band of friends Robin moves to an idyllic country house where he can enjoy the peace of the country, except for the ever-present wheeze of his respirator.
All the while the risk of suffocating is mere minutes away, shown when their yappy dog knocks the plug from the socket. Robin tries to shout for help but without air in his lungs nothing comes out. He can hear Diana in the next room with their son saying playfully ‘Where’s Daddy?’ while he suffocates unbeknownst to her. When she finally enters the room and sees, horrified, an unconscious Robin, she plugs the ventilator back in and after a nervous few seconds he springs back to life. Garfield is sublime in this scene, the increasing desperation in his eyes with every moment that passes is haunting.
Now settled in the country, Robin decides he wants to travel freely, not tied to an extension cord, and here lies the point of massive historical significance. An entrepreneurial friend designs and builds what is essentially a wheel chair featuring a mobile, battery powered respiratory unit. This contraption allows Robin to live a free life; to go where he wants to go.
There is a heartwarming scene where Robin, Diana, their adult son and friends travel to Spain. The respirator’s electrics become fried whilst driving down a rural country road and they have to take turns hand operating a smaller respirator while the original maker flies over to fix it. During the wait a mass of locals come and by the time he arrives there is music playing, people dancing and an all round jolly time. Not one of them was scared of Robin’s appearance, if anything they liked him more.
Before the invention of the mobile wheelchair, people with disabilities were locked away in hospitals with an ‘out of sight, out of mind approach’. Polio will never allow you to live a normal life, but because of Robin Cavendish and his determined wife Diana, sufferers could live a happy one. Serkis captures the magic and charm of Robin’s extraordinary life — a life he well and truly lived.