Friday, October 20, 2017

Breathe: An extraordinary story, told with grace

Breathe (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

This is — but at the same time, isn’t — what you’re expecting.

The tagline — “With her love, he lived” — implies a poignant drama likely to bring tears, and that’s entirely accurate. But this also is the factual biographical depiction of Robin Cavendish, who was anything but ordinary ... and he sure as hell wasn’t a victim.

An outdoor excursion proves just the ticket for Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield,
reclining), much to the delight of his friends and family: from left, Teddy (Hugh
Bonneville, partially obscured), Diana (Claire Foy), young Jonathan (Harry Marcus)
and David (Tom Hollander)
No matter how old I get — no matter how much time is spent in movie theaters — I marvel at directors and writers who keep finding amazing people who’ve thus far escaped the mainstream attention they deserve. In this case, of course, that’s my American ignorance speaking; I’m sure Cavendish remains a household name to this day, in his native England, just as he must’ve been during his incredible life.

Andy Serkis — a longtime stage actor who became best known for “performing” CGI characters such as Gollum (Lord of the Rings), King Kong and Caesar (Planet of the Apes) — makes an impressive directorial debut with Breathe, the thoroughly engaging saga of Cavendish’s life. Although ample credit also belongs to his stunning ensemble cast, there’s no question that Serkis orchestrates the film with heartfelt respect for his subject.

Scripter William Nicholson — Oscar-nominated for 1993’s Shadowlands, and for his collaborative work on 2000’s Gladiator — handles this challenge with intelligence, sensitivity and far more spontaneous humor than one would think possible. Although Cavendish endured what most would consider a tragedy, that descriptor does not characterize this film; it’s astonishing, how often Nicholson evokes gentle laughter.

That must have been one of the key goals, because — more than anything — Cavendish demanded to be accepted and treated like everybody else ... which is to say, like “normal” people.

On top of which, Serkis and Nicholson had the best possible guidance: One of this film’s producers is Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s son, who with Serkis runs the production company Imaginarium Studios. Bringing his father’s story to the big screen obviously was a labor of love for Jonathan, and — this, too, is a small miracle — his devotion to the material didn’t interfere with what has emerged as a remarkably tender and thoroughly uplifting film.

The story opens in the late 1950s. As introduced during a spirited cricket match, Robin (Andrew Garfield) is every inch the dashing, ex-British Army officer. In a few deftly constructed scenes, Serkis and Nicholson establish the love-at-first-sight speed with which Robin falls for the aristocratic Diana Blacker (Claire Foy, immediately recognized as young Queen Elizabeth II, in TV’s The Crown). She’s equally smitten, and they marry.

A trip to Kenya in 1958 ends in chaos, as Robin is stricken — suddenly and savagely — with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe without a mechanical respirator inserted directly into his trachea, and unable to speak because air no longer passes over his larynx, Robin sinks quickly into depression; the agonized despair in Garfield’s silent gaze is heartbreaking.

But Diana isn’t having any such nonsense. With Foy displaying the quiet steel that immediately made her such a memorable Elizabeth II, Diana calmly insists that she has no intention of leaving her husband to die. Determined to turn lemons into lemonade, she demands to know what she can do to help.

Get me out of here, he pleads.

That’s the challenge, because “here” is a ward filled with other “responauts,” all confined to bed and subject to the cruel limitations imposed by the hospital’s imperious director, Dr. Entwistle (Jonathan Hyde, sublime as the world’s most uncaring, pompous prick). At a time when civilians never, ever argued with doctors who wielded full authority, Diana has a full-scale battle while dealing with this man.

Even so, we’ve no doubt that she’ll eventually triumph.

But that’s only the first step. Being stuck in a bed, tethered to a respirator that must remain plugged into a wall ... whether in a hospital or in the crumbling mansion that has become their new home, confinement is confinement.

This is where the story takes its unexpected and astonishing turn.

His infirmity notwithstanding, Robin enjoys many benefits, not the least of which is the loving, patient and resilient Diana. They’re also fortunate to have an equally devoted set of friends, starting with Diana’s mildly twittish, identical twin brothers, David and Bloggs. They’re a jovial but feckless pair straight out of P.G. Wodehouse, and — here’s a delightful bit of cinematic legerdemain — both are played by Tom Hollander.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Serkis, an accomplished veteran of so many special-effects masterpieces, would include some similarly remarkable trickery in his directorial debut. You’d swear that Hollander himself must be twins, and not merely because both David and Bloggs share the screen on multiple occasions, even when engaged at physical activity such as moving a heavy bed — one of them at each end — down a long flight of stairs.

Hollander also establishes individual identities for each, while at the same time giving them the tics and twitches that twins often share. One or both often provide comic relief, but they’re definitely not figures of ridicule; their frequent haplessness simply makes them more endearing.

And perhaps because David and Bloggs are so adorable, Hollander gets one of the film’s most powerful moments, when the twins sing a famous WWI-era music hall ditty.

Robin’s most important friend, however, is amateur inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville, late of Downton Abbey). Blessed with an insatiable appetite for solving insurmountable problems, Teddy regards Robin as the ultimate challenge. Teddy is disheveled and a bit socially inept, in the manner of all absent-minded professors; Bonneville makes him irresistible.

Stephen Mangan is memorable as the compassionate Dr. Clement Aitken, defiantly anti-establishment, who becomes important in the story’s third act. The venerable Diana Rigg, on camera for no more than a minute, and three or four short lines, nonetheless steals the show during her brief appearance.

Several young actors play Robin and Diana’s son Jonathan at ages 2, 5 and 10; Dean-Charles Chapman takes over when the boy grows into a young man. Although much of his performance is silent, it’s no less persuasive.

Foy is a force of nature: an actress who vanishes utterly into her roles. She’s accomplished on a level akin to Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench: like them, a master of the delicate gesture.

Garfield, in turn, gets incredible mileage from the various shades of Robin’s megawatt grin. Being restricted to facial expressions seems no more a limitation for Garfield, than apparently was the case for the actual Robin. It’s an impressive performance, all the more so for the subtlety with which Garfield evokes so many emotions.

Although Nicholson obviously worked hard to depict events accurately, the film glosses over the 24/7 demands being made of Diana, in her role as Robin’s full-time caregiver. We get glimpses of the obvious: draining fluid from Robin’s throat, and the vital importance of the respirator. But many other essentials — meals and nutrition, the need to knead and exercise limbs, the prevention of bedsores, and so forth — apparently don’t exist. Ironic though it seems, Serkis and Nicholson make Robin’s life look much too easy.

There’s also the question of money. Diana mentions, early on, that finances are tight ... and yet the Cavendish family spends the entire film quite comfortably. What the heck are they living on?

Although Serkis maintains a steady tone throughout most of the film, the final act can be accused of too much sentimentality, particularly with the use of a lengthy (and wholly unnecessary) set of quick flashbacks from earlier scenes. One would have been sufficient: the quiet moment backed by Bing Crosby’s earnest rendition of “True Love.”

On the other hand, by this point the film has built up so much good will, that you likely won’t mind having your tears jerked so mercilessly.

(Serkis’ use of music actually is quite droll at times, most notably when he borrows Lee Marvin’s gravel-voiced delivery of “Wand’rin’ Star,” from Paint Your Wagon.)

Breathe often is disarming: simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, by turns amusing and fascinating, unexpectedly instructive and socially progressive. Rarely has the phrase “We’ve come a long way, baby” seemed more apt.

To be sure, this is an unabashed valentine to Robin and Diana Cavendish. But when the package is assembled with such sensitivity and respect, who can complain?

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