How to breathe in life and love
(M) Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Diana Rigg, Miranda Raison
The true story of disability advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), Breathe is a film about love and the will to live. After Robin contracts polio in Kenya at the age of 28, he is paralysed from the neck down and given three months to live. His wife, Dianna (Claire Foy) intervenes, however. Against doctors’ orders, she brings him home to a shabby house in London, where she cares for him. Breathing with the aid of a respirator and aided by friends and family, Robin outlives his initial prognosis and goes on to become more mobile. Through his travels and advocacy, he transforms the lives of countless others.
Jonathan Cavendish—Robin’s son and a featured character in the film—worked as one of Breathe’s producers. This, combined with the cast’s dedication to capturing the story (Garfield consulted with the family during production) ensures that Breathe portrayal of Cavendish’s life has authenticity.
Robin Cavendish’s life was one of unexpected events. This included his paralysis, but also his ability to move out of hospital and into home care. With the help of his friend Teddy Hall—an Oxford professor who fit his respirator into a wheelchair—he was able to become relatively mobile, and travelled to conferences on the rights of people with disability. Cavendish himself was an atheist, and yet, Christians may learn much from his commitment to living life in abundance and bringing this to others.
Dealing as it does with the meaning behind Robin’s unexpected infection with polio, Breathe inevitably touches on issues of theodicy. The question of how God would allow people to live in profound suffering is raised more than once, with Robin answering that he thinks God is “a joke”. Breathe, however, is not a didactic film and the matter of theodicy is only explicitly addressed in a few key moments (such as when Robin spits on a priest who attempts to explain away his condition as the will of God).
Here, the focus is on (and the film’s power lies in) the love Dianna shows Robin through his life: a Christlike response to an imperfect situation. As Foy put it in an interview, “The most important thing to get was their love for each other. I didn’t want to over-sentimentalise her; and she definitely doesn’t want to be seen as a saint, or an angel, or incredible sort of nurse. It was just actually love.”
Breathe manages to personify in Robin the struggle and desire of many people who live with disability: he simply wants to be mobile and to make decisions for himself, and knowingly takes on a great risk in initially choosing to leave the hospital to go home with his wife. Having seen his fellow patients in a German polio ward run by the department of the interior, he asks a conference the challenging question as to why they are kept in “prison”.
Breathe opens nationally on Boxing Day.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ editor