Jenny hardens her heart with only 2 stars for Breathe
I met my friend Bob at university. He had been unlucky enough to get polio as a child – the tail end of the epidemic just before universal vaccination banished this horrible illness in the UK. He was in a wheelchair. His way of managing the reactions of those around him was to refer to himself sardonically as Brave Bob. ‘Oh yes’, he’d say, ‘Brave Bob still has a working brain’, and woe betide anyone who patronized, asked intrusive questions, for instance about sex, what worked and what didn’t, or made comments intended to be tremendously encouraging about how amazing it was that he could manoeuvre his wheelchair in and out of lecture theatres. Bob already saw the attraction of the Supercrip to the world of able bodied people.
Breathe unfortunately follows the familiar Supercrip stereotype that we see in films about disability. The film, which is directed by Andy Serkis, is based on the real life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife Diana (Claire Foy). Robin contracts polio as a 28-year-old in Kenya, is permanently paralysed from the neck down, can only breathe thanks to a mechanical respirator and is given months to live. Diana springs him from hospital despite the dastardly opposition of his doctors and finds a friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) who can make him a wheelchair which includes the respirator. They entertain, they travel, Robin campaigns for disabled people and lives for another 36 years. Judging from his Wikipedia entry, the real life Robin was a thoroughly inspiring man see and this film is intended to commemorate his life and work, especially as the producer is his son Jonathan Cavendish.
The film will work for many people as a lovely weepie – I heard a lot of snivels from fellow audience members, but alas, I hardened my heart. Full disclosure: I lived with a severely disabled man until his death 7 years ago. He was in a wheelchair for the last five years of his life. He, too, mocked the Supercrip stereotype, refusing people’s pity. I promise you that living with disability is nothing like it is depicted in this film and I hated the way it fell into the easy stereotypes:
The disabled person is always a man.
The actor is slim, able-bodied and good looking.
He uses a wheelchair because this is a visible symbol of disability that everyone can understand.
The man is saintly, brave, uncomplaining and clever.
The man needs the wisdom of a good woman to save him from a life of despair but she must sacrifice everything because her purpose in life is to serve him.
The cost in money of disability must never be mentioned, for instance of equipment, adaptations to the home, special clothing, laundry, helpers.
People who oppose the hero are creeps, jerks and bullies.
The emotional costs to the rest of the family must never be mentioned.
The disabled person ingeniously discovers ways of overcoming his physical handicaps through inventions usually involving string, bells, teeth and eye movements.
Towards the end of the film the disabled person makes a rallying speech about prejudice.
The disabled person must die in the film, often to prevent further exploitation of their loved ones.
Breathe falls into all of these clichés, with added heartswelling orchestral accompaniments in case we miss the point. The characters never age, except for some terrible prosthetics added to poor Andrew Garfield’s face for the film’s final sequences. A rosy glow permeates the gracious if slightly tatty home and its surrounding rural landscapes. Everyone smiles most of the time and Andrew Garfield does a lot of splendid acting with his eyebrows.
Diana appears to deal solo with Robin’s needs, but did she really? Did she manually evacuate his bowels and change the catheter? Did she dress him and feed him? Did she do all the extra laundry? Did she, a slight woman, turn him, a heavy man, every few hours on her own and deal with the ugly threat of pressure sores every day? Did she service the respirator? Where did the money come from? How did she manage to do all of this and care for a small child? Did the child never resent the time and attention that his father necessarily absorbed?
No, I don’t think this would have been possible. There must be a good documentary to be made about the extraordinary life of Robin Cavendish which would salute his role in raising awareness and horizons for disabled people and which would not shy away from all the things most people really don’t want to know. We would all rather preserve our cosy fantasies, the most malign of which, perpetuated in every feature film as in this one, is that if disabled people try really really hard, they can overcome their handicaps.
This film is a touching tribute by a son to his father, but it is also a good argument for never being involved in a film where you are one of the real life characters.
My old friend Bob lived a distinguished life as an acerbic critic, writer and academic. His feisty wife, Marie, is nothing like the pastel-coloured character depicted by Claire Foy. In his way Bob was as much a pioneer as Robin Cavendish. You can read his Guardian obituary here.