Reasons to live
True-story film Breathe shows the positive impact of one man’s life with disability—but takes a tragic turn
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I hoped Breathe would prove the exact opposite of Me Before You, a film pro-life advocates condemned last year for its romantic portrayal of assisted suicide. The first two-thirds of Breathe delivers a resounding pro-life message. The last third—not so much.
The film, rated PG-13 for some foul language, medical gore, and kissing between married characters, is based on the true story of producer Jonathan Cavendish’s father, Robin Cavendish, a British soldier paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio in 1959. For the first act, a breezy love story unfolds as Robin (Andrew Garfield) works in Kenya with his devoted wife, Diana (Claire Foy). When polio strikes, Robin becomes unable to breathe without a respirator, and doctors say he has months to live. Embittered, Robin spits in the face of a priest who speaks empty platitudes. He asks to die.
Diana becomes his hero: “You’re not dead and that’s that,” she says, defying convention to break him out of the hospital and act as his caretaker.
Robin’s life becomes an exercise in joy. Family and friends approach his paralysis with humor and pluck. Their efforts to produce a wheelchair with an attached respirator liberate hundreds from hospitals.
As a Spanish priest later says: “God’s jokes always have a purpose. This man’s suffering brings us all together in celebration.”
Spoiler alert: This review is incomplete without a discussion of Robin’s death. According to the film, when a turn for the worse reveals he will die painfully within months, Robin asks to commit assisted suicide. Astoundingly, everyone who fought for his life—doctors, family, and friends—puts up little resistance. They hold a victorious “leaving party” and comply with Robin’s plans. Here Robin’s story contradicts its earlier, triumphant tone. What is the ethical difference between his wish to die at the beginning of the film and his wish at the end?
We can all be thankful Robin didn’t succeed in dying when he first wished. If he had, his pioneering work with the paralyzed might never have happened.
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