Sunday, 31 December 2017

Breathe (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Tea broker Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), after being stricken by polio and rendered paralysed from the neck down, has been given only three months left to live. However, between his wife Diana’s (Claire Foy) words of encouragement and his own resolve, he plans on being around for a bit longer than that. As he adjusts to his new living conditions, his friends and family all chip in to help him out, starting a movement that would lead Robin Cavendish to become one of the most famous advocates for the disabled in history.

Garfield is in top form here, creating this pervasively chipper presence that echoes Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything in how infectious his spirit is. On top of that, he manages very well with the more sombre moments, hitting genuine tragedy without it getting too morose. Foy goes beyond just having terrific chemistry with our lead (which undoubtedly has) and becomes a shining beacon of optimism that pulls both the audience and Robin himself into the film’s brighter moments. She is the avatar of the film’s inspirational tone, something that she carries expertly in every scene. Tom Hollander as both of Diana’s twin brothers steps into awkward comic relief territory at times, but once the rest of the film starts to catch up with him in tone, he fits right in and even gives us one of the film’s more quietly emotional moments as they sing farewell to their friend.

Hugh Bonneville as inventor Teddy Hall fills the role with a serious creative spark, coming across as someone who would do anything for a dear friend; as a depiction of an absolute legend of a human being for what he contributed to the disabled community, he fits excellently. Dean-Charles Chapman as Robin and Diana’s son Jonathon (who is also one of this film’s main producers) gives a lot of emotional air to his mostly-quiet scenes, Jonathan Hyde as the doctor Robin proved wrong fits into the “doctor who doesn’t know that the phrase ‘bedside manner’ even exists, let alone exhibit it” mode that quite a few antagonists(?) in these types of stories end up sticking to, and Stephen Mangan as the stark contrast to that makes for a very warming presence, particularly in his scenes opposite Garfield.

There’s a scene in the film where a priest visits Robin in his hospital bed. The priest proceeds to tell him that God has a plan, meaning that Robin’s illness and current medical state are part of it and were always meant to happen. Robin then gets the priest to lean in closer just so he can literally spit in his face. I bring this up for two reasons: One, this scene is amazing, and two, this establishes the cheekily defiant tone of the rest of the film. While it doesn’t exactly skimp out on some of the darker details, like Robin’s initial bout of suicidal depression over what polio reduced him to, it mainly sticks to Robin’s efforts to live a fruitful life in spite of his circumstances. It’s definitely light but not to the point where it feels insulting or purposely glossing over the uncomfortable stuff. 
And honestly, I really friggin’ like this approach. It gets tiring after a while of people making out a person’s disability to be nothing more than a life sentence (or, depending on severity, a death sentence), so seeing a film like this that sets out to show that it’s not the end of everything is rather comforting as someone who needs disability support himself.

Not that the film is all sentiment with no purpose; it most certainly aims squarely for the heart, but there’s something just a little bit juicier in here as well. People with certain medical needs tend to have a love-hate relationship with the medical profession as a whole. On one hand, they provide the means for specific types of care to be administered, and they are often the only thing between being in a hospital bed and being in a locker in the morgue. On the other hand, they can also be rather cold as far as tending to patients’ needs, treating them more as walking diagnoses than actual individual people. This is a notion that gets echoed a lot in cinema as well; it’s one of the reasons why the medical establishment is often depicted as either the primary or secondary villains of stories involving hospitals and especially mental institutions.
Here, it gets a good going-over through Robin’s determination to live longer than his initial 3-month prognosis, but it also gets looked at something entirely detrimental to a patient’s wellbeing. As much as medical conditions should be treated seriously, they also shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of a person’s existence. And it certainly isn’t something that people should be ashamed of either.

Of course, there’s a bit of hypocrisy in that idea when it comes to this film, along with many other films depicting specific medical conditions. For all this film’s talk of how disabled people can still be functional members of society, we don’t have an actual polio sufferer in the lead role; we have an able-bodied actor passing. He isn’t the first to do so, and unfortunately, he won’t be the last. However, while I can definitely understand the irritation of media representations that don’t actually include the people being represented, I don’t take as much issue with it in these cases. Part of it is down to a familiar notion of how just because a person is genuine doesn’t mean that they will be able to engage with a given audience; not every film is cast by real-life examples of what’s being dramatized, and there’s no guarantee that it would work even if they did.

Besides, you don’t need to be in the exact same situation as another person in order to be sympathetic towards them. Eddie Redmayne not actually having ALS didn’t make his performance as Stephen Hawking any less resonant, Ben Affleck not actually being autistic didn’t make his performance in The Accountant any less badass, and Andrew Garfield not actually suffering from polio doesn’t mean that his turn in this film is any less uplifting. As this film goes into great detail about, willpower can take you a long way but, eventually, everyone needs an ally. And if more people took heed of stories like this, which emphasizes allowing others the dignity to be their own person, there could be a whole lot more of them out there.

All in all, this is an incredibly pleasant viewing experience. The acting is very good, helmed by Andrew Garfield at his most inspirational to date, the visuals show that director Andy Serkis (yes, that Andy Serkis) could prove to be a powerful force in the world of cinema beyond just his acting ability, and the writing manages to keep things uplifting without skimping on the darker true-to-life details. Also, on a more personal note, this film makes a nice change of pace from the usual “well, you’re stuck with it; sucks to be you” approach to depicting disability on-screen, especially when dealing with someone as genuinely inspiring as the real-life Robin Cavendish.

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