It is not for nothing that the religious practice of meditation uses concentration upon breathing to still the mind. It is the fundamental activity that is with us from birth until, er, our last breath. Without it we are literally snuffed out. In this touching British drama, the fight for breath and the fight for the dignity of an independent life are artfully fused. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Director Andy Serkis (yes, that Andy Serkis – the protean soul behind Gollum in Lord of the Rings) has his first go behind the camera, and a pretty decent job it is too. The film revolves around the somewhat unbelievable life of Robin Cavendish; it turns out to be the remarkable story of a remarkable man. For once the ‘true story’ element is not just a gesture, it stays with you all along the tortuous but uplifting journey.
Cavendish seems like a quintessential Englishman of a certain era. In the breezy set-up scenes in the 1960s we see him hitting an effortless six at a village cricket game and then snaring his lovely wife Diana (Claire Foy), all before bounding off to Africa to sell tea and make his fortune. In Kenya he plays the role of an imperial trader as effortlessly as he does everything else. It is a rosy-colonial view of Africa, but legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson (Tarantino’s go-to man) makes it look so damn good it is gobsmacking. Ironically, it is in this paradise that things go slightly, and then fully, ‘tits up’.
As usual these days, a film’s trailer will spoil things by showing you how the disease that Simon gets affects his life, and those around him. Without dwelling on that we can say that he shows a kind of heroism that would make most of us feel pusillanimous. Along the way he overcomes understandable despair and, in collaboration with his friends and physicians, makes life better for countless afflicted people both then and now.
Serkis knows better than to get in the way of such a story. He also gets great performances from his cast. Andrew Garfield (whose mixed English/American heritage enables him to pass easily as a stiff upper lipped Brit) manages to make the stereotypes work for him. With this, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, under his belt he seems to be cornering the market in exemplary heroism. Claire Foy (fresh from the TV series The Crown and very much on her way to full stardom) has a role equally close to being unbelievable but she plays so well with Garfield that you buy the whole thing. A couple of scenes that they have together are off the tearjerker scale but don’t kid yourself that you won’t be blubbing along with the rest of them.