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