ReelBob: ‘Breathe’ ★★★

By Bob Bloom

The legacy of Robin Cavendish is that severely disabled people need not be hidden away and confined to hospital beds.

In 1973, Cavendish told a conference of doctors in Germany that it should be their mission to help “integrate them into society.”

People such as Cavendish don’t “want to just survive,” he said, they “want to live.”

And live he did, as “Breathe,” starring Andrew Garfield as Cavendish, shows. Cavendish was a young, athletic man living in Kenya with a new wife and a baby on the way when, at 28, he was struck down by polio and became paralyzed from the neck down.

Returning to England for treatment, he was placed on a ventilator in order to breathe. This was 1959, and his prognosis from his doctors was bleak.

The life expectancy of patients in Cavendish’s condition usually was only a few months.

But pushed by his wife, Diana (Claire Foy) and with support from family and friends, Cavendish defied the odds.

Against doctor’s orders, he left the hospital and was taken home, where Diana began taking care of him.

Her twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander) and inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), helped, with Hall creating a chair with a built-in respirator so Cavendish could be taken outdoors and travel.

“Breathe,” which marks the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, is a biopic and a love story.

The movie is rather warmhearted and sentimental, which is no surprise, since Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, was one of the producers.

“Breathe” works because of the performances and interaction of Garfield and Foy.

Garfield’s transformation from a vigorous individual to a helpless and bitter invalid who wants to die, but who gradually, because of the love and care of his extended family, evolves into an advocate for others in his condition, is brilliant.

Confined to using his voice and facial expressions, Garfield conveys an emotional range from helplessness to joy to confidence, as he continually tests and pushes his limits.

Foy’s performance is just as praiseworthy. Her Diana refuses to give up on her husband, forcing him to accept and adapt to his new life. Her steadfast love and encouragement are the forces that drive Cavendish.

The movie does take some liberties with the facts, but so do most biopics.

What Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson do correctly convey is the essence of Cavendish’s journey and the strong bond between Robin and Diana that led them to advocate for others — permitting them to again breathe fresh air, experience sunlight and feel the wind on their faces.

“Breathe” has its flaws — a hospital official, for example, is presented as a clichéd, short-sighted, by-the-rules bureaucrat — but the roads traveled by the Cavendishes make the film a journey worth taking.

I am a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My reviews appear at ReelBob ( and Rottentomatoes ( I also review Blu-rays and DVDs. I can be reached by email at or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Links to my reviews can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

3 stars out of 4
(PG-13), adult themes, bloody medical images