Breathe: A biographical film based on the life of British disability advocate Robin Cavendish

Breathe Film Poster

“Go back to your hospitals and you tell your disabled patients that they too can truly live. You all have this power to open the gates and set them free.” Robin Cavendish

By Nils Skudra

During this period of quarantine, I had the opportunity to watch the 2017 biographical film Breathe, based on the true story of British disability advocate Robin Cavendish. Directed by Andy Serkis (renowned for his portrayal of Gollum – who arguably exemplifies a character with split personality disorder – in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), I felt that this film would be a worthwhile topic for the Art of Autism because, while it is not an autism-themed production, it is nonetheless a moving portrayal of how an individual with a severe physical impairment not only struggled against adversity to live a fully functioning life but also spoke for the social integration of others who shared his disability.

The film opens with young British traveler and tea businessman Robin Cavendish (portrayed by Academy Award nominee Andrew Garfield of Hacksaw Ridge fame) meeting Diana Blacker (portrayed by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy from The Crown miniseries), the daughter of an affluent family, during a cricket game at her parents’ estate in the late 1950’s. An attraction quickly develops between them, although Diana’s twin brothers unsuccessfully try to convince her to find a more suitable match. She and Robin are soon married, and they travel to Kenya where they spend much time taking nature hikes in the company of their friends. Robin is overjoyed when he learns that Diana is pregnant, but things take an ominous turn when he experiences mysterious physical pain and collapses during a cricket game. Although he initially takes this to be merely a minor occurrence, Robin soon becomes paralyzed and unable to breathe normally without a respirator, and it is made clear that he has contracted polio.

During his hospitalization, Robin develops a bitter and fatalistic attitude, asking that he be taken off life support so that he will die. However, Diana remains firmly determined that her husband live, telling him that she won’t let him die and that she wants him to see their son Jonathan grow up. She is told by the head surgeon that as an individual with polio, Robin’s life expectancy is only a couple of months and that his condition requires permanent confinement to a hospital bed. Nonetheless, Diana purchases a house in the countryside and enlists the aid of Dr. Khan, a surgeon from India who is subjected to the head surgeon’s cultural arrogance, to have Robin removed from the hospital with the ventilator in tow so that Robin may live with his family while continuing to use life support at home. This significantly lifts Robin’s spirits, but he is still left confined to his bed in the house, with the ventilator plugged in the wall and vulnerable to his son running around.

Robin subsequently seeks the help of his friend, inventor and Oxford professor Teddy Hall (portrayed by Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville), to develop a wheelchair with a built-in respirator so that he may have daily mobility while still retaining life support. Through the use of this device, Robin is able to travel away from home with his family and enjoy leisurely time with them, taking a vacation to Spain. However, when one of his brothers-in-law accidentally blows up the respirator in the car during their trip, Robin is forced to call Teddy and have him fly over from England to repair it. Thereafter, Teddy makes new improvements to the wheelchair design so that this incident may not repeat itself.

Robin eventually comes to the attention of Dr. Clement Aitkin, an innovative polio advocate who takes inspiration from Robin’s example and seeks to produce more respirator-based wheelchairs for severely disabled individuals. He informs Robin of an international disability conference taking place in Germany, which Robin and Diana eagerly agree to attend. Upon arriving in Germany and visiting a facility for severely disabled patients, Robin observes firsthand that they are confined in electronic life-support containers, with only their heads sticking out, and he is repulsed by these conditions. At the conference, Robin opens his speech by asking “Why do you keep your disabled people in prisons?” and then makes a moving appeal that draws upon his own experience:

“Let me ask you, when you look at me, what is it that you see? Do you see a creature that’s barely alive? Or do you see a man that’s escaped the confines of the hospital wards? Now, I have a machine under this very seat, and it breathes for me. And at home, I have a ventilator by my bed. I also have a remarkable group of friends. And most vitally I have my wife. But, as you see, I can do nothing for myself. And yet here I am. When I first became paralyzed, I wanted to die. Yeah, I wanted to die, I did. But my wife wouldn’t let me. She told me I had to live. To see our son grow up. So, I went on living… because she told me to. Because of her, really. And with her. And for her. And every day since then, I’ve accepted the risk of dying because I don’t want to just survive. I want to truly live. So, I implore you, you go back to your hospitals and you tell your disabled patients that they too can truly live. You all have this power to open the gates and set them free.”

This powerful speech provides striking commentary about Robin’s struggle with polio and how it has motivated him to advocated for others who are severely disabled. Through this experience, he has developed greater empathy for people marginalized by society on account of their disabilities, and it has instilled in him the determination that they have the capacity to function independently, just as he has demonstrated by personal example, and should be given the opportunity to do so. This is not only relevant among people with severe physical disabilities, but it also rings true for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, since they can thrive independently in society if given the opportunity and necessary support from family and professionals. This message proves highly convincing to Robin’s audience, which gives him a standing ovation, and he subsequently succeeds in having wheelchairs produced for the patients at his former hospital so that they can leave and seize the opportunity for successful integration into society.

Despite Robin’s success, his dependence on life support gradually takes a toll on his health over the years, as he suffers severe bleeding through the opening in his neck due to the respirator’s impact on his lungs. This leaves him with the feeling that he should cease living on life support for the sake of Diana and Jonathan’s happiness, believing that continual care for him will only bring them misery. Diana is enraged by this prospect, exclaiming “What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?” when Robin insists that she can finally live her life once he is gone.

Having resolutely supported him throughout their marriage, Diana is firm in her conviction that Robin *is* her life, and she thus considers his appeal to be purely selfish. As the film draws toward its conclusion, she is confronted with the challenge of weighing the happiness they have had together with Robin’s desire to end the miserable decline that continued life support will bring to his health.

Both Garfield and Foy deliver powerful performances, with Garfield bringing a combination of warmth and dry humor to the role of Robin while Foy captures Diana’s staunch resolution and firm commitment to her husband. Furthermore, the film conveys a moving message about the power of love and determination in the face of adversity, as Robin defied expectations through Diana’s support and iron resolve, living far beyond the average life expectancy that polio patients were deemed capable of having in the 1950’s. Due to the advocacy efforts of Robin and Diana, numerous individuals with severe physical disabilities are now able to successfully live outside hospitals as fully integrated members of society. Breathe is truly an inspirational film that can appeal to disability advocates of the present generation, and its message will hopefully motivate them to continue their work on behalf of disabled individuals so that they may take advantage of the opportunities that Robin and Diana helped to open up.

Nils Skudra

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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