“I’m sure there will be people who absolutely won’t see this movie because of this,” says film director Andy Serkis, referring to the controversial ending of his inspirational film Breathe, “but that’s why we make movies, to try and engage people into debate.”
This is a beautifully shot and emotionally engaging film with some amazing acting by Andrew Garfield who, for much of it, can only move his eyes and mouth. Breathe tells the true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disability. Soon after their marriage, when they are on a business trip together in Africa, Robin is suddenly paralysed by polio and only kept alive by a mechanical respirator. Initially he becomes deeply depressed and wants to die. However, Diana’s devoted love and the presence of their new-born son, inspires him to keep on living.
He finds a way to escape from the confines of a hospital bed, which he refers to as ‘a prison’. Together with his friend Teddy Hall, Robin designs a wheelchair with a built-in respirator that enables him to move outside, to feel the warmth of the sun, to hold parties for friends. He even designs a contraption to get him into an adapted van and is able to travel the world. Robin uses this restored freedom to become a passionate advocate for others living with major disabilities.
Produced by Jonathan Cavendish, Robin and Diana’s son, the film faithfully recreates their amazing and heart-warming true story, even their almost disastrous trip to Spain (because Robin wanted to see the sun set over the Mediterranean) when the portable respirator broke down and Jonathan took turns with Diana to hand-pump air into Robin’s lungs for two days, until a replacement arrived.
But, in the controversial final scenes, the film makes a change to the story. The real Robin lived until he was 64 years old, becoming a medical phenomenon as one of the longest-living polio survivors in Great Britain. However, when Jonathan commissioned screenwriter William Nicholson (known for Les Miserables, Gladiator and other award-winning films) a surprising ending was produced.
The Director, Serkis, clearly hopes that Breathe will encourage people to think about end-of-life issues. This is an important subject, requiring evidence-based rational debate. But, on its own, does the ending of this film help us to engage in such a way? By this point in the story, we have become so invested in the inspirational character of Robin that we might think that he can do no wrong, and whatever decision he takes must be not only be right, but also serve as yet another example to us all on how we should face such situations. With balanced, evidence-based, consideration this film can indeed help people to think about end-of-life issues. But we might also ask the wider question with which all writers, producers and directors of any media must wrestle: when addressing complex and challenging moral dilemmas, what is the difference between thought-provoking art and insidious propaganda?
Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org and EthosMedia.org which provide free downloadable resources to help school pupils and the general public to explore spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues through the latest films.