Inspirational opener for LFF 2017
In recent years, the London Film Festival has established a trend for opening with a worthy, issue-based film. The Imitation Game (2014), Suffragette (2015) and A United Kingdom (2016) are followed this year by Andy Serkis’ first released feature, Breathe, one which flies the flag for people with disabilities.
Like its predecessors, it also takes its inspiration from fact, but this time it’s more personal. The story is based on the parents of the film’s producer, Jonathan Cavendish. His father Robin (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) at a cricket match. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to Kenya where he works as a tea broker but everything changes dramatically when he contracts polio and is given only weeks to live. Despite him being paralysed from the neck down and permanently hooked up to a ventilator, Diana is determined Robin should live his life to the full. Back in the UK, she defies medical advice, moves him out of hospital and, with help from a professor who develops a wheelchair with a built-in ventilator, she creates an environment where he can thrive.
So attitudes towards disability is a major theme, but resilience, love and family values are all there, and it even dabbles with the more controversial issue of euthanasia. The film starts off in the 1950s and so effectively evokes the period that you expect Kenneth More to appear on screen at any moment. Perhaps – and most appropriately – in his most famous role of Douglas Bader in Reach For The Sky. But that flavour of the 50s is so strong that, even as time moves on into the 60s and 70s, it never wholly disappears. That may have something to do with the characters speaking in frightfully plummy English accents. And those voices make it impossible for you not to wonder what would have happened to Robin if he hadn’t had money. None of what we see on screen would have happened: he wouldn’t have stood a chance and would have died in months. In that way, it’s a very posh film.
That’s not to diminish what the film shows us about attitudes to disability. In the case of Robin and his fellow patients, they are patronised by doctors and conventional medicine, which dictates they should be looked after in special hospitals and cut off from the real world. The smiling Robin and the determined Diana are trailblazers, as are their friends and family, but the tone of the first half is too upbeat and undermines the film’s credibility.
The film comes into its own in the second half, when the cheery gloss is replaced by something more grounded and an inspirational tone. Serkis unashamedly goes straight for the tear ducts as he shows the depth of the love between Robin and Diana and it’s beautifully played by Garfield and, especially, Foy. He may not always hit the target, but what he creates is tender and heart warming. Most moving of all, however, is when the constant background noise of the ventilator gives way to silence.
Comparisons with the Oscar winning The Theory Of Everything are inevitable – the husband with the life threatening condition, the devoted wife who does everything she can to make sure his life is worth living. But the real similarity between the two films is that it’s the actress who plays the wife who delivers a performance that isn’t just the equal of her male counterpart, but better.
Breathe opens the London Film Festival on Wednesday, 4 October and is also screened on Thursday, 5 October. The film goes on general release on Friday, 27 October.