Breathe: LFF Film Review 

I wasn’t sold on Andy Serkis‘ directorial debut Breathe straight away, I must admit, because it just looked the same as a lot of recent ‘couples against adversity’ movies like The Theory of Everything and last year’s London Film Festival opener A United Kingdom. And while there are a lot of similarities, the performances and tone really won me over.

Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, who embarks on a whirlwind romance with Diana (Claire Foy) and marries her before they go off on a trip to Africa. While there, he contracts polio and is basically left paralysed from the neck down and unable to breathe. His prognosis is not good, but Diana refuses to let him die so they eventually break him out of hospital so she can care for him and their son Jonathan at home.

Cavendish defies medical belief that he will be bed bound for the rest of his short life by asking his friend (Hugh Bonneville) to make a special wheelchair, one that comes with a respirator, so he can go outside and really live, rather than just survive, and he wants the same for other sufferers too.

It took me a while to get into Breathe because the vignettes of them meeting, courting and marrying happen so quickly that you haven’t invested in them as a couple before he gets sick. You don’t know them well enough yet. The set-up also really reminded me of A United Kingdom as they go to Africa shortly after falling in love.

It reminded me a lot of Theory because while Cavendish has a different condition, he’s still paralysed and unable to do anything for himself. But I stopped making comparisons without realising it once they broke him out of hospital and I think that’s largely down to the tone.

It is quite light-hearted and deliberately funny at times, which is refreshing compared to the serious tone of those others. While the nature of Cavendish’s condition is horrific, he is always trying to make a joke or put people at ease, like when he was first paralysed he called it “a bit of a bugger”. Diana also tries to put an upbeat spin on things although their eyes don’t always match what they’re saying. Despite the tragic situation, you can’t help but laugh along with them too, especially when they get stranded in a lay-by in Spain and it becomes a party – it seems absurd, but it actually happened!

Garfield was predictably excellent, changing his voice to suit the accent and to sound like someone with a hole in his neck. Cavendish runs the gamut of emotions about his condition and Garfield conveys them with just his face. Foy has just as much emotional responsibility but she largely keeps it hidden and has a stiff upper lip about it. I would say she’s running the risk of being typecast as posh people with this and The Crown but I’m sure her newly announced turn as Lisbeth Salander in the next Millennium film will sort that out.

There are also some wonderful supporting turns like Tom Hollander, who play both of Diana’s identical twins with his usual sarcasm, Ed Speleers as their friend, Stephen Mangan as a disability charity boss, and Dean-Charles Chapman as the older Jonathan.

Despite my earlier reservations, I was eventually won over by Breathe because I am a sucker for an inspirational real life story and triumph above adversity. It is uplifting, tear-jerking and makes you appreciate what you have.

Breathe opens the 61st London Film Festival on Wednesday 4th October. It is set for release on 27th October

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