Breathe

 

            If you're old enough, as I am, to remember the pure fear surrounding the outbreak of polio in the early 1950's, this movie reminds you that in this case, the widespread panic was justified.  At the time, the insidious polio virus could strike anywhere at any time, and completely paralyze its unlucky victims.  By the time the vaccine was developed, in 1955, it was too late for many people, including Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield).

            Robin came from an upper-crust British family, was very good at cricket and tennis, and wanted to develop international markets for his tea import business.  He met Diana (Claire Foy) and instantly fell in love, and not only persuaded her to marry him, but also to accompany him to Africa, where their Kenyan safari was the stuff of adventure fantasy.  But all his dreams came crashing down when he suddenly contracted polio, and suffered the completely paralysis version, including the inability to breathe on his own.  He was attached to an iron lung in a hospital bed, a tube in his throat, unable to speak or move anything except his eyes.  When he was finally able to swallow again, and speak, the first thing he said was he wanted to die.

            But Diana was not going to let Robin give up so easily.  Especially since she was carrying his child.  She wanted him to see their baby boy grow up.  So she stuck by her invalid husband, and encouraged him, and persevered even though he told her he didn't want her pity.  What he did want was to get out of that sanitorium, and eventually she was able to convince the staff that she could learn to do what they were doing, and she could maintain the breathing machine, and they would both accept the risk.  Just being rolled outside was a euphoric moment for him.  But they didn't stop there.  With the help of an inventor friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), they devised a chair with a portable breathing apparatus attached.  This freed up Diana to roll Robin outside regularly, and to ride in a car (modified by Mr. Hall).  And their friends and family regularly came to visit, and would roll him outside for the lawn parties, so he didn't become socially isolated, either.

            But what really got Robin Cavendish going was the desire to help others like him enjoy the same precious freedoms.  He managed to raise enough money to buy similar chairs for others on his ward at the hospital.  He spoke to a meeting of physicians specializing in care for the disabled, emphasizing that people like him need not be imprisoned, but were capable of living fuller lives than anyone expected.

            It's an inspiring story, about two people with a lot of pluck in the face of adversity.  And so much love for each other that they weren't about to quit.  Not until, years later, his lungs got so scarred from the constant ventilation that the continuing bleeding was just going to get progressively worse.  And that's when Robin Cavendish finally decided to succumb, but only after he'd seen his baby boy grow up.

            It's a heartfelt, emotional narrative, and it's true.  But its re-telling will also create some controversy.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Under what circumstances would you prefer to die rather than keep on living?

2)                  In those circumstances, would you ask someone to help you die?

3)                  In those circumstances, if you were the caretaker, would you allow or arrange for fulfilling the wishes of the patient?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association