Breathe, opening this Friday Oct. 13, is a classic, old fashioned, romantic tear jerker. It reminds us a lot of The Theory of Everything in that it’s a film based on the true story of a British man who against all odds overcame a devastating illness and thrived. Another similarity? Both movies are, at their hearts, incredible love stories.
The people behind the Breathe might be annoyed by such comparisons, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that both Stephen Hawking in Theory (played by Eddie Redmayne who won an Oscar for his performance) and Robin Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield) in Breathe had similar stories and incredibly strong, supportive, and patient wives who helped push them to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Hawking, a theoretical physicist who was diagnosed with ALS in the early ’60s, learned to speak with a voice synthesizer, wrote the acclaimed book A Brief History of Time and was supported all along the way by his first wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones in the film).
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Cavendish survived polio, lived many decades longer than expected, and helped change the quality of life for disabled people everywhere, proving that even those dependent on ventilators could be mobile, active, and productive human beings. His wife, Diana (played superbly by Claire Foy, from The Crown) refused to listen to doctors who insisted her husband only had a few months to live and stuck by him until the day he died.
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An important side note—the film seems like a bit of a love letter from producer Jonathan Cavendish to his parents Robin and Diana, and it’s directed by his good friend actor Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and Ceasar in The Planet of the Apes). It’s a warm, sentimental look at their lives, beautifully shot by Academy Award winning cinematography Robert Richardson who took home Oscars for his wok on JFK, The Aviator, and Hugo.
The movie opens with the dashing, boyish Robin at a chic cricket match. Robin becomes infatuated by the beautiful elegant Diana, who is observing from the sidelines in a sweet floral dress. The two exchange some witty repartee, sparks fly, and romance ensues. Soon they marry, go to Kenya on a business trip, and we see them kissing against a gorgeous sunset.
It seems like a fairy tale when Diana tells him she’s pregnant and everything is wonderful, until shockingly, Robin collapses at a tennis match and is soon diagnosed with polio at the young age of 28.
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Paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe, and initially unable to speak, Robin is told he only has a few months to live and resigns himself to the fact that he will die in a depressing hospital. He tells Diana, “Why do you keep coming here? I’m no use to you. You really must leave me.”
Diana strongly refuses to accept that fate, however, and pushes Robin to regain his will to live and be a father to their son. Over the objections of the doctor, she brings her husband back to their country home along with his breathing apparatus.
The two were fortunate enough to have a colorful crew of eccentric friends and family (including Diana’s mischievous twin brothers, both played by Tom Hollander) who often came to visit, throwing parties and playing games to keep Robin’s spirits high.
Some of our favorite scenes in the film are these lively fetes of drinking, cavorting, and costumes, with Garfield as Robin at the center, grinning from ear to ear and happy to be alive.
Eventually one of their pals, an inventor named Teddy (played by Hugh Bonneville, aka Lord Grantham of Downtown Abbey) creates a mobile respirator that can be attached to Robin’s wheelchair. Soon he and Diana are traveling and speaking out on behalf of disabled people, raising money and awareness to help improve the quality of their lives and manufacturing the chairs for others.
At times, the movie can be a bit overly sentimental and glosses over some of the problems the couple must have endured along the way, but sentimentality is easy to forgive. This is, after all, a loving tribute by a son to his parents—an inspiring couple who overcame all medical odds to live full and meaningful lives. What’s not to love about that?