Breathe: Rippingly old-fashioned tale of love and stoic positivity

Review: Hard to knock account of paralysis in post-war England despite stereotypes

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Director: Andy Serkis
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Stephen Mangan, Hugh Bonneville, Penny Downie
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins

The film that has ended up being Andy Serkis's debut feature (after his version of The Jungle Book got kicked back a year) opens in an idyllic version of post-war England, at home to warm crumpets, rough socks and cider with lumpy bits. Nice Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a tea importer, and even nicer Diana (Claire Foy) meet cutely at a cricket match when he biffs a front-foot drive straight into the crockery. They fall politely in love. They get married. They travel to a charming version of Kenya that probably won't delight those steeped in post-colonial critical theory.

Even if you’d entered the cinema with no prior information you would be in little doubt that something awful is about to happen. Movie characters don’t get this sort of sunny introduction unless they’re cruising for a cropper. Sure enough, Robin soon keels over with polio. He is paralysed from the neck down.

Do not despair. After a few brief miserable scenes in hospital, the film settles back into stoic positivity. The real Robin Cavendish was an extraordinary man. Refusing to remain tied to a static ventilator, he insisted on going home and eventually developed a portable machine that allowed “responauts” (that’s the word, apparently) to move around in wheelchairs.

Garfield does a fine job of conveying emotion with only his facial muscles. Claire Foy, star of The Crown, gives us a nicer, though no less clipped, version of the queen. Strong support comes from Hugh Bonneville (nice boffin), Jonathan Hyde (crusty doctor) and two Tom Hollanders (Mrs Cavendish's twin brothers).


Breathe is moving, informative and gently funny. But, by golly gumdrops, it's rippingly old-fashioned. No major film in recent years has dealt in so many (largely positive, to be fair) racial stereotypes. The English keep their upper lips stiff. The Spanish dance to Flamenco guitars. The Germans are coldly efficient. An Indian character is calmly philosophical. And David Wilmot plays an incorrigible red-bearded Irish rogue – a terrible fellow, altogether – who is referred to throughout as "Paddy".

Oh well. The thing is so good natured it’s difficult to get annoyed.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist