However much derided the inspirational biopic might be, they are popular for one very good reason – we want to believe that adversity can make you a better person.
Or, at the very least, that it doesn’t derail, to too great an extent, who you already are.
The reality is, of course, that encountering a traumatic incident of some kind comes with no guarantees of any particular type of outcome, other than nothing will ever be the same again; not that you would know that from most of the movies that depict it in rose-coloured tones of quiet triumphalism.
Breathe, a loving homage by Jonathan Cavendish to his father Robin (Andrew Garfield), who contracted polio at the age of 28 in the late ’50s in Africa, very much fits into this mold, giving us a rousing portrait of a man who took one look at the cards dealt him and decided it was winning hand at poker, not a lose-your-house kind of deal.
To that extent, it is a business as usual entry in the inspirational biopic genre, a tale of a plucky, vivacious and handsome man who travelled internationally for business, won the heart of the most beautiful girl on the scene (Diana, played by Claire Foy) and was preparing to be a father when tragedy struck.
Knocked sideways like anyone would be by the paralysis that polio brings on in its war with the body’s central nervous system, Robin, as is par for the course in these films, variously begs Diana to leave him, let him die, and keep his son Jonathan (Dean-Charles Chapman as an adult) away from him.
He has, in other words, given up on life, an understandable reaction and one that feels very authentic, especially for someone of such a onetime “seize the day!” mentality.
He rallies naturally and goes on to defy expectations that he will, like all polio patients of the time either die a quick death, tethered to a respirator in the hospital or in an iron lung – one of the most harrowing scenes in the films is when he is taken to a state-of-the-art German hospital in the early 1970s and see polio patients stacked up in a white, futuristic and soulless room – by developing a wheelchair, with his friend Oxford professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).
This chair, with a battery-powered respirator to boot, gives him unparalleled freedom, allowing Robin to leave the hospital, move home, and spend copious amount of times with the wife he adored and the son on whom he doted, and a gloriously idiosyncratic group of devoted friends who went to extraordinary lengths to make his life far more than just a simple story of survival.
His move was a bold one, a slap in the face to the medical establishment of the day (represented by Dr Entwistle, played with Vaudevillian flair by Jonathan Hyde) who, for no doubt sound reasons of good patient care, wanted to keep their polio patients immobile and in hospital.
So far so good when it comes to being a staunch card-carrying member of the inspirational biopic club.
What makes Breathe such a huge amount of fun, and for all its heavy subject matter that’s precisely what it is, is that it beautifully captures what Jonathan describes as the “swashbuckling band of eccentrics” who surrounded his parents as he was growing up.
Comprising people like Hall, Diana’s twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (Tom Hollander) and fellow British expat from Kenya days Colin Campbell (Ed Spelleers) and a seeming cast of thousands, these people speak to the magnetism of Robin who, initial post-diagnosis aside, refused to let life defeat in.
At this point, I’m sure, the more cynical among us are rolling their eyes and tut-tutting the laughably unrealistic nature of such a portrayal, and to be fair, the film could do with a little more of the gravity and life-altering reality of a life, a marriage and countless other things upended by the kind of adversity Robin and Diana encountered.
It must have been exhausting and awful, and there would undoubtedly have been countless occasions when Robin was ready to throw in the towel – this is addressed in some form, providing one of the most wrenching scenes of the film – but conversely, there are plenty of people who refuse to let a situation like this bring them down and Robin was one of them, as was Diana who is portrayed by Foy as an indefatigable trooper.
So yes, contracting polio, losing mobility and having your bright and shining life derailed must have been horrific but Breathe chooses to focus on the fact that Robin and Diana – the two were reportedly devoted to each other and the story cannot have one without the other – chose to focus on what could be gained, not what had been lost.
There’s such an irrepressible sense of joy and joie de vivre to the film that you can’t help but fall in love with the characters, and the amazing places their never-say-die approach (well, almost) to life takes them.
There are delightful scenes of the Cavendishes on holiday in Spain, forced to camp by the side of a road miles from their holiday house when Robin’s wheelchair blows a massive fuse and ending up in an impromptu party that lasted days while they waited for Hall to reach them in Spain.
We see too the countless parties, the richness of the friendships, and the way in which the family was surrounded and enabled and supported in the most extraordinary ways by a stellar group of friends who were, in every way you can imagine, family.
You can deride it as cheesy schmaltz if you like but you would be missing the point entirely – in a world where the powerful overtake the powerless, the dark seems to cover the light and hope seems less eternal than ephemeral, it’s heartening to be reminded by bright, effervescently lovely films like Breathe, which do portray a realistically upbeat side of life (it’s not all doom and gloom, even if the circumstances are), that it’s possible for good things to come from dire places.
There’s plenty wrong with life, but the Cavendishes refused to accede to that truism, with Breathe being a thoroughly delightful and buoyant reminder that facing up to adversity with smiling tenacity and a Carpe Diem mindset is exactly what the doctor ordered (or didn’t in Entwistle’s case) and can be more than a series of bright inspirational moments; that’s it vitally necessary and the only sane response in a world where the options are none too palatable and giving up doesn’t get you far at all.
So deriders of the world, step away please; Breathe, the directorial debut by Andy Serkis, is a brilliant antidote to the dark and cynicism of life, a film that follows a conventional, trope-heavy narrative route for sure, but carries with it a remarkable spirit, sense of fun and a wonderful understanding of the limitless possibilities of life, even one interrupted by adversity.