Breathe – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The true story of how Robin and Diana Cavendish coped with the devastating effects of his polio diagnosis and resulting paralysis is the subject of this inspiring biopic by first-time director Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy stay in Breathe. Photo copyright 207 Bleeker Street.

The film jumps right into the courtship of twenty somethings Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy). He’s a dashing world explorer, and she’s a wealthy society girl who’s always the prettiest female in the room.  Even though Robin’s income can’t guarantee all the luxuries with which she’s become accustomed, Diana knows he’s the only man for her, and they soon wed.

A Devastating Case of Polio

Shortly after she announces her pregnancy, Robin falls ill with polio – a devastating case of total paralysis which lands him in the hospital with only a few months to live on a respirator. Although Robin says he wants to die rather than suffer another day in the hospital, Diana convinces him that he must survive so their child will know his father. Diana learns how to care for Robin at home (an outrageous idea at that time), and their inventor friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), constructs a revolutionary new wheelchair with a breathing apparatus, so Robin is not confined to bed.

As the years go by and Robin proves the doctors wrong, he enjoys traveling with his wife and son, and socializing with his loyal friends who’ve helped him throughout the years. He also visits other patients around the world to show doctors better options for fellow Polio sufferers like himself. Eventually his health declines further as a result of living with a breathing tube for so many years, and the prognosis is impending death and being a further burden to his wife until that happens. It’s at this point that the usually jovial Robin again falls into a bout of depression and wants to die.

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother

Honoring one’s father and mother is so important that it’s one of the Ten Commandments. However, importance doesn’t necessarily make for great filmmaking. Jonathan Cavendish (son of Robin and Diana) produced this film, which idealizes his parents and their experiences. The relentlessly upbeat tone shows a physically beautiful woman, tireless in her devotion to her husband and son, and possessing extraordinary courage and compassion. There’s also her invalid husband – a man robbed of all movement and given a death sentence at the tender age of 28; even so, he’s usually the life of every party and offers flippant remarks in the face of death. Likewise, their friends and family are eternally loyal, patient, and loving. While all these factors may well be true, the darker sides of these people and their experiences are never revealed.

There’s also music by Nitin Sawhney that ranges from somewhat somber in dramatic scenes to inappropriately lighthearted pieces more fitting to a slapstick comedy. The producer’s fond memories of these moments with his parents appear to have distorted his view of the way things were at the time. The jarring shifts in tone feel uncomfortable and inauthentic. The Cavendish story – especially Robin’s inspirational visits to help others – is certainly worth telling, but perhaps with more facts and less subjectivity.


  • This true story examines a couple’s determination to be together despite a devastating disease.
  • Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Ed Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde
  • Director: Andy Serkis
  • Writer: William Nicholson
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 117 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images)

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