Breathe

While Breathe is an aesthetically pleasing film with powerful performances, ultimately the portrayal of life for a paralysed person, especially one living in the mid to late twentieth century, is problematic.

Breathe tells the story of how English disability advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife (Claire Foy) influenced attitudes towards disability in the second half of the twentieth century. After being paralysed from polio in 1959, Robin and Diana are determined that Robin should live outside hospital, and take it upon themselves to make this happen in the face of medical and bureaucratic intransigence. With the help of an inventor friend who develops a wheelchair with a respirator, Robin becomes the first person paralysed from the neck down to live outside an institution.

In many ways, it is a lovely film. You care about the characters, you laugh, you cry, the scenery is pretty and the period music and stylings are pleasing. It is both a compelling love story and an uplifting example of overcoming adversity, both of which are all the more powerful because they are based on true events.

Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, the film hits a snag in its representation of disability. The team behind Breathe set out to demonstrate that physical impediments and social prejudice can be overcome. The way this was portrayed, however, downplayed the enormity of the economic, social and bureaucratic challenges that people with disabilities face (and continue to face), resulting in the plot taking on the overtones of a jolly family having round-the-world adventures despite the fact that one of them is dependent on a wheelchair and a respirator.

This is not to say that the film does not tackle some hard issues. Prior to seeing it, I wondered how it would tackle the tough realities of life as a paralysed person- including how one toilets oneself, a consideration that has profound ramifications for human dignity. This aspect was portrayed briefly; while Robin Cavendish was in hospital a nurse is shown attending to this, and Diana assists him with a bottle at home (though I am still confused about how Robin could tell he needed the bottle when he was paralysed from the neck down). I felt it was good that this aspect was at least shown, although it was a sanitised version of what would have been in reality a messy and constantly difficult business. There are also confronting moments, such as when Robin initially wants to die, and towards the end when he experiences bleeding from his tracheotomy and is in danger of drowning in his own blood.

I had many other questions about key aspects of daily life that were left out. How did the Cavendishes make money when his wife cared for him full time (especially, how did they afford to maintain a fairly grand looking house in the country)? How did his wife cope with providing round the clock care for 36 years? How did they manage the end of their sex life at the beginning of their marriage? Did he get bed sores? How did they manage the risk of infection? How was he transferred from the wheelchair to the bed and vice versa?

The focus on the family’s holidays, advocacy and vibrant social life instead of domestic hardship is because the co-producer is the Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, who is also present as a character in the film. He intended the film to be a love letter to his parents and a testament to their pioneering advocacy. It was thus a deeply personal project, and he obviously wanted to portray his parents in a certain light. All of which is fair enough, but deciding to portray a true story on screen, and a personal one at that, is inevitably going to give rise to questions about authenticity. These questions are further complicated when the issue at hand has a strong political dimension, which disability advocacy and the representation of disability in art most certainly do.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jonathan Cavendish tackled questions about his parents’ experiences and their representation in the film: “Some very cynical American critics have a problem with the fact that a disabled person can have an amazing life, which really pisses me off…And some people don’t believe it. I’m going, ‘Hang on, mate, I was f***ing there.’ My mother, who is the most scrupulously honest person on the planet, was also there, and she agrees: this happened and it happened in this spirit.”

The film is a representation of one family’s experiences of a particular disability at a particular time. If those who lived through it agree with the representation of their experiences, is that enough?

Admittedly, I was still bothered.

There were attempts to demonstrate the insidiousness of social prejudice and the hypocrisy of those charged with treating or advocating for disabled people, such as when the Cavendish family attends a conference on disability in Germany and the wheelchair can’t fit though the hotel door and there are no other disabled people attending. In another scene, Diana asks Robin if they are to be “pitiful or plucky” when seeing donations from an aristocrat for the manufacture of the wheelchair they developed with Professor Teddy Hall so that other polio survivors can use them. This scene highlighted one of the contradictions in social advocacy- while advocacy itself is intended to be an expression of agency and a way to reset power imbalances, advocates can also become beholden in compromising ways to those who wield power.

Most concerningly for a film in which the portrayal of advocacy plays an integral part, the script runs the risk of suggesting it is up to an individual to surmount the challenges facing them, or that attitude alone can change one’s situation in life. This discounts decades of advocacy which sought to highlight that society as a whole has to take responsibility to break down barriers. In the film this suggestion is reinforced by the invocation of the stereotypical stiff upper lip, which, although played for comedic effect (the way Robin is released from hospital is comedic but completely unrealistic), again downplays a lot of the obstacles that people with Robin’s level of disability faced and continue to face. The portrayal of polio patients being liberated by the wheelchair also sidesteps many of the sticky issues surrounding deinstutionalisation which continue to resonate today, namely around family and social support, economic independence, adequate housing, and employment opportunities.

One of the scenes that more successfully treads the balance between hardship and humour is when Diana and Robin meet with a bureaucrat to request funding for wheelchairs. The bureaucrat says that it is not worth the government’s money because polio patients don’t live long. At first, it looks as though it is just Diana and the bureaucrat present as Robin’s torso is obscured by a pile of papers on the bureaucrat’s desk- he is literally erased, like so many disabled people, by the insidious logic of bureaucratic policy development. Then the audience hears Robin’s voice and the camera angle changes to reveal his presence. The bureaucrat says, “I feel sympathy for your condition” to which Robin replies, “and I do for yours”- a triumph of the Cavendishes’ passion and persistence over a purveyor of prejudice.

Ultimately, portraying the lives of people with disabilities is very sensitive and difficult to get right.  While Breathe succeeds in some areas, I feel it downplays the daily humiliations that continue to be present for people living with a disability, and could have been improved with a more nuanced script that had a greater acknowledgement of the political dimension of advocacy, and reflection on how far we still have to go in breaking down prejudice.

Directed by Andy Serkis

Screenplay by William Nicholson

Produced by Jonathan Cavendish

Starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield

 

The Crown Series 1

“We are half people, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology. The two sides within us human and crown engaged in a fearful civil war which never ends and which blights our every human transaction as brother, husband, sister, wife, mother.”

Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the eponymous role, poignantly skewered the flurry of corporate image control deployed by the Royal Family and its apparatus of advisers in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The Crown continues in this noble tradition, contrasting the god-like status of the monarch with the reality of the incumbent’s powerless in the face of custom, protocol, cabinet and constitution, not to mention the perpetual stage management to stave off overthrow through a popular rebellion. Paradoxically, this strive for survival comes at the cost of the family itself; despite the imperative for the clan to stick together and preserve the institution of royalty, relationships crack under the strain of expectation and the cloistered stuffiness of privilege (not to mention the spectre of in-breeding).

The visuals of the Crown– the depiction of birthright, glory, pomp and circumstance, the finery of period costume and the allure of celebrity- entails a lavish viewing experience. While I am a sucker for the aesthetics of period evocation, in the Crown this also came with the irony of hindsight. I was seduced by the immaculate and sumptuous stylings which surrounded the mysterious façade of the Crown, then unsettled by the portrayal of the vulnerability and inherent hypocrisy of those associated with it. With a $100 million budget, the cinematography and staging was also convincingly regal (unlike the cardboard reconstruction of Westminster Abbey used in The King’s Speech).

There are many parallels to draw between the Crown and Jackie, which I have also reviewed on this blog. Both have a preoccupation with myth-making, and deconstruct and re-make the legacy of Queen Elizabeth and JFK respectively. Both texts are self-consciously questioning of institutional  authority and the mystique and obfuscation that tradition works to produce. As the character David Windsor, the former King Edward VIII who abdicated because of his love for the divorced Wallis Simpson, states while watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth: “Why have transparency when you can have mystery?” David is played superbly by Alex Jennings, who becomes a scene stealer with his memorable lines including, “This family, when you’re in you’re never really sure, but when you’re out there’s no doubt. You’re out.”

Having said that, the series boasts a top-notch cast. Claire Foy is magnificent as the Queen, as is Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Eileen Atkins plays the Queen’s grandmother, the former Princess Alice, Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret, and Jared Harris plays King George. Perhaps most impressive, however, is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. By some trickery of the camera, his height is reduced and his girth is magnified, while his lips are pursed and voice gruff in the manner of the bulldog. It was also a pleasure to see Jeremy Northam back on screen, playing the foreign Minister and latterly Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. I only hope that The Queen stars Helen Mirren and James Cromwell reprise their roles in the latter series.

There are many fascinating intersecting strands to the Crown’s portrayal and critique of monarchy, including the religious symbolism with which it is imbued; the pull of tradition against modernisation and, indeed, common sense; public image versus private feeling, which is explored in the context of implosive family dynamics; the emasculation of Prince Philip through his role as consort; and the maintenance of the separate constitutional roles of monarch and parliament.

Central to the series is the basic question, what is the crown? Is it an institution, a person, a family, a god, or a certain kind of power? The answer that is most obviously correct is that it is an institution, but it is also all of these things, all of which conflict with one another. From the outset, as Elizabeth takes over after the premature death of her father and with the rancour stemming from her uncle’s abdication still poisoning relations, it is apparent that the series is not a homage to a timeless god(dess) currently manifested in the earthly form of Queen Elizabeth II, but as a damning portrayal of a contradictory and self-destructive clan. The crown is both precious and thorned.

If one thing is made clear, it is that the crown is a burden. While it is a cliché that with great power comes great responsibility, the members of the royal family suffer most acutely in their private lives while outwardly appearing to enjoy the trappings of the happy accident that is their birthright. Brother turns against brother; a mother becomes a stranger to one of her sons and blames him for the premature death of her other son who became king; Elizabeth is cut down the middle, torn between love and duty; Princess Margaret cannot marry the man she loves because of the precedency of canon law and tradition over personal feeling and public sentiment; Prince Philip’s pride is irreparably wounded, having to give up his name, naval career, and having to kneel in front of Elizabeth at her coronation. When the Queen ships him off to Australia ostensibly to give him a job (open the Melbourne Commonwealth Games), there is a clear sub-text: come back a changed man and accept your subordinate position. Prince Philip counters with one of the most biting lines in the series: “Don’t dress betrayal up as a favour.”

In the episode focusing on the coronation, we also see the beginnings of the corporate takeover of the Royal Family’s image. Though unelected, there is a preoccupation with public sentiment. The dramatization of the coronation cleverly unpicks the mythic proportions that the ceremony has taken on, and reveals that at best it is all smoke and mirrors, and at worst, a way for an unelected institution to periodically remake its relevancy.

The central thread of the series is Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. This narrative also encapsulates the dualities and contradictions entailed in carrying out the duties of the crown. While as a sister Elizabeth wants the marriage to go ahead, as head of the Church of England she cannot allow it. Cabinet proves intractable, even as public sentiment supports the match. Rather than bring the Church of England’s values up to date or keep her promise to her father not to let the crown get in the way of their sisterly bond, the Queen gives Margaret an impossible ultimatum: stay in the family, or marry Peter and renounce everything.

Writing in The Guardian, Lauren Carroll Harris argued that the Crown is “trash” which tries to “humanise” the monarchy. The drama and pathos evoked by certain characters elicits a variety of emotional responses from the viewer, including disbelief, ridicule and sympathy, but it is a stretch to say the show is a puff piece. Peter Morgan is on record making various ascerbic statements about the Royal Family, including that the Queen has limited intelligence and that she would rather have spent her life breeding horses and dogs. These sentiments come out on screen. The Family comes out as a cold, outdated institution that is effectively powerless, that holds on to the idea of class as a birthright, that lives off the largesse of the tax payer, and who seem blind to the ravages colonialism- and who on earth would want to marry into it?

It has been reported that events portrayed in the Crown are frenziedly googled by viewers to check the extent of their truthfulness, and the Royal Historian Hugo Vickers has written a 15 000 word pamphlet on all the factual inaccuracies of the series so far. To me, this misses the point.

Firstly, it is a dramatisation and I don’t think it purports to be anything other than that. We cannot know word for word every private conversation that every member of the royal family has ever had, so obviously it has to be made up. Peter Morgan makes clear that he is concerned with what occurs behind closed doors- his play The Audience explores the weekly meetings between the Queen and the Prime Minister throughout history. He is concerned with lifting the veil, and, in portrayals of events such as the coronation, draws attention to the way the real-life event was an exercise in creating a mythology which is then received by the public as “truth.”

Secondly, truth in fiction does not always amount to telling the facts. It is about the truth of representation, which is something quite different. Fiction allows us to reimagine the past and the future in new ways- an intellectual exercise that is not about lying, but about questioning previously held assumptions. The portrayal of vulnerability and powerlessness of the Royal Family in The Crown is a compelling counterpoint to the image of celebrity that has come to dominate today’s royals, and is perhaps partly what makes the series such compelling viewing.

There is also a certain irony about viewers being disappointed to discover that some conversations and plot points are the product of artistic licence.  When it comes to the Royal Family, how do we actually know what is real anyway? The performances they put on in public are heavily scripted, their images controlled to a tee. Hell, the way they portray themselves is basically fiction. Not to mention the apparatus of obfuscation that surrounds them. Julia Baird points out in her biography of Queen Victoria that people close to that monarch, including royal historians, coloured her historical legacy by destroying or editing her correspondence, amongst other things. When Baird set out to investigate the truth, the Royal Family continually rebuffed her requests to access the Royal Archives, ultimately allowing her only partial access.  That doesn’t exactly smack of transparency. As a journalist points out in the second season, doesn’t the public have a right to question those who hold such power, especially when they are not democratically elected?

All that is left is to wonder what Queenie herself makes of it all. Now that would be an episode of Gogglebox worth watching…