Review: Breathe

Films centred on a disabled protagonist tend to fall into two broad categories. Either the audience is invited to marvel at the inspirational tale of how someone overcame terrible adversity, or the audience is asked to count their blessings because that could be us, in an unluckier life.

I’m not a big fan of either narrative. I would prefer to see a film about a disabled character that isn’t all about their disability. The only one I can think of is the French comedy Untouchable, and possibly one other which I’ll mention below. Breathe tries, to be fair, but I don’t think it really succeeds.

Based on a true story,  Breathe portrays the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), paralysed by polio, who refuses to accept that he must spend the rest of his life in a hospital. His wife (Claire Foy) arranges to care for him at home, despite everyone telling her it can’t be done. Robin wonders whether his breathing machine could run off a battery, persuading a friend to build him a wheelchair that will incorporate the machine, enabling him to go outside. He persuades an elderly philanthropist (a lovely cameo from Diana Rigg) to fund the mass production of similar chairs, enabling others with his condition to leave their hospital prisons.

I don’t think detailing the plot spoils the film. The movie is far more about the why and how than it is the what. The stars are excellent and while the cinematography does feel a bit Pride-and-Prejudice-like at times, this isn’t inappropriate.

I just feel like it’s missing something.

Many years ago I saw another movie about a quadriplegic man based on a true story. It was made for TV, starring Gary Cole. He was fighting for the right to end his life. Since he was paralysed he couldn’t do it himself but his friend reluctantly agreed to fit a switch in his breathing equipment which he could operate with his mouth. If I remember it right, the film was about his legal battle to get the switch fitted. At the end of the film, he chooses to live; the battle was about control, not suicide. I’m not saying that’s a better film; it probably wasn’t. But it’s stayed with me all these years. I don’t think Breathe will.