It’s said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and there’s no greater proof of that than watching Hollywood portrayals of disability. Nearly all of these films follow a similar pattern, and generally revolve around a true story, usually to negate criticisms of authenticity. The press tour for Breathe has been reliant on producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the film’s subjects, and his quotes about the authenticity of the film…but it’s to no avail. Outside of Breathe hitting every mark in the “stereotypically disabled” handbook, first-time director Andy Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson fail to tell a proper narrative, instead relying on disability alone to be the story.
Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) has just married the lovely Diana (Claire Foy) with life being nothing short of perfect. That is until Robin is paralyzed from the neck down due to polio. As he struggles to live a full life on his own terms, his wife stays by his side.
The plot synopsis sounds thin because Breathe doesn’t possess anything particularly complex. A light and whimsical score and cursive handwriting ripped from a Sofia Coppola film are our introduction to what should be a serious drama, not a romantic melodrama. (This comedic tone continues with Robin dropping self-deprecating punchlines to make those uncomfortable normies even more uncomfortable.) A slow motion montage in the film’s first three minutes presents Robin, wind rippling through his hair and goofy Garfield grin on his face, and Diana, a gilded princess, as they eye each other across a cricket pitch. Further slow motion sees them fall in love, possibly in the same scene, and soon they’re married. There’s no foundation for their relationship – interests, hobbies, they don’t even exchange names!
A trip to Africa – filmed so beautifully you expect Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” to play – ends with Robin hobbled by polio and the movie’s “plot” kicks in. What plays out in the film’s near two-hour runtime is the filmic equivalent of a family member reciting stories about their parents as they saw it. Not surprising considering who the film’s producer is. Though the real Jonathan Cavendish obviously finds his parents to be lovely people – and they are presented both as lovely people filmed lovely – there’s no bite to them.
Compared to the other disabled drama out this year, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Stronger, Breathe is flat in everything. The characters are so perfect they seem unreal, and Robin’s life – though it involves the creation of the mobile respirator and the hydraulic wheelchair lift – plays as boring. Foy and Garfield are cute together, and the film implies (though never shows, big surprise) a sexual intimacy that doesn’t dissipate after Robin’s paralysis, but their relationship is little more than a gauzy fairy tale. It’s refreshing to not have an able-bodied character complain about their disabled “burden,” but Diana and Robin never argue about anything! Robin bears his disability with a grin and a smile, and those jokes, while Diana is reliable and determined. For Jonathan Cavendish, his parents were perfect but it’s hard to buy in a film let alone necessitate the need to tell their story at all.
What’s frustrating is that though the Cavendishes aren’t necessarily fascinating, their life opens the door to talking about real milestones in disabled history that are worth telling but remain on Breathe’s fringes. Robin spends much of his time after his diagnosis in a polio ward where doctors and nurses don’t expect them to live long. Later, Robin travels to Germany where he sees a hospital devoted to keeping patients in iron lungs, the images of disembodied heads starkly frightening. These moments do a solid job in presenting the horrors of being disabled in a time where institutionalization was the norm for many. Where able-bodied people look at Robin as “amazing” because they’re fortunate to be healthy, the hospital does a lot towards reminding Robin of how lucky he is that he has advantages many don’t. It’s one of the rare moments the film attempts to connect to disabled audiences specifically.
On-screen presentations of the year are all that anchor any sense of time to the narrative, making two-hours feel longer than it should be. Nicholson’s script is just as breezy as the time jumps when it isn’t heavily telegraphing things. A darling Diana swinging on a swing in a lace dress proclaiming that marrying Robin is “it” for her only alerts the audience to the presumed adversity and sadness meant to follow. The film’s third act follows a familiar tactic last seen in the weepie Me Before You, setting a dangerous precedent that the only agency – and “freedom” – for disabled people comes in death. It’s a trope that remains unexamined and is utilized here both because it really happened and to make audiences cry.
Breathe possesses some solid historical beats and two energetic leads but it’s mired in a flimsy and saccharine depiction of disability. The two protagonists are too untouchable to feel real, finding too much perfection to be interesting.