Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
There have been many films about astronauts. Here is a film about a “responaut,” a term coined by the British press in regard to the film’s protagonist many years ago. Actor Andy Serkis, best known for his performance-capture work in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; and the two Planet of the Apes films, directs this true story film about a couple who transformed the way polio victims were treated decades ago. If you are looking for a feel-good film, this could be it, though you will have to search it out at an art house theater.
While playing Cricket Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) spots Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) in the crowd. It is love at first sight for both. Their time spent in Kenya where Robin is sent as a tea broker reminds me of beautiful scenes in Out of Africa—dining on a veranda with a beautiful sunset as a backdrop; flying in a small plane amidst mountains and through verdant valleys. This happy period comes to a crashing halt when in 1958 the 28-year-old Robin contracts polio, which paralyzes him from the neck down and robs him of the ability to breathe on his own. The diagnosis is that he has just a short time to live. Giving in to suicidal despair, Robin would have given up his will to live, but Diana will not allow it. “You’re not dead, and that’s that,” she declares.
Back in England the head doctor informs Diana that her immobile husband must forever remain in bed, but still she will not give in to the “inevitable.” Robin wants to live and die away from the hospital, but the doctor, saying it’s never been done, refuses permission. With connivance of an assistant doctor, nurses, and her twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (both played by Tom Hollander), she sneaks him out of the hospital, his respirator powered temporarily by a hand bellows. The head doctor tries to stop them, declaring, “You will be dead in two weeks.” They press on, arriving at a dilapidated country house Diana has found, where he is reattached to the electric powered breathing machine.
Instead of dying in a few months as predicted by the arrogant doctor, Robin flourishes, his spirit buoyed by the countryside and more personal care, as well as the humor and support of Bloggs and David. He and Diana even become the parents of two children. His desire to leave the house is fulfilled by his inventive friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), who after a lot of tinkering, comes up with a wheelchair and a battery powered respirator. His mobility is increased by the conversion of a van, though at first this proves a problem because when placed in the rear, his head is touching the ceiling. This is remedied by removing the passenger seat and installing a hydraulic one into which Robin can be transferred. This enables them to travel even to Spain, though a near-catastrophe causes them to summon Teddy from England for repairs.
The breakdown of their van so far from home is treated lightly rather than as the real danger to Robin that it was. While waiting for Teddy to arrive the next day, the Brits are visited by residents of a near-by village who bring their guitars, food, and even their priest with them. That evening during what amounts to a small fiesta, the priest observes, “God makes jokes upon us so to bring us together to celebrate.”
A very harrowing scene is the one in which Robin and Diana go to Germany for a conference on the disabled. Beforehand they visit care facility where the doctors proudly show off their state of the art treatment. To their horror the couple sees the heads of dozens of polio victims protruding from iron lungs. Stacked in rows that reach all the way up to the ceiling, the victims look like something from a science fiction horror film. At the conference Robin makes an eloquent plea to the doctors, “You all have the power to open the gates and set them free.” Serving as the example of what that freedom could be, he and Teddy are soon in the business of producing wheelchairs equipped with respirators so that others can become untethered to hospital wall sockets. The scene in which Robin leads a procession of fellow patients from the hospital, all of them in their own wheelchairs is a delightful sight. Always accompanied by Diana, Robin travels extensively on behalf of the cause of the rights of the disabled. In a real sense he proclaimed, “liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Millions of those who once were expected to simply lie in bed attached to machines until death released them are in the debt of this redoubtable couple.
Thus, it is good that the film honors this deserving couple. However, we might have appreciated them even more had the filmmakers inserted a few more darker moments into the script, as did the makers of I’ll Push You, another film about a paralyzed wheelchair-bound man. Surely Robin and Diana must have been frustrated often by the myriad snags and small barriers making it difficult to maneuver a bulky wheelchair, especially in those days when there was little public or government awareness of the needs of the handicapped. This is a minor complaint, in that film does turn somber at the end, raising the issue of euthanasia. Robin’s insistence that the handicapped have the right to be treated with dignity also extends to that of the hopelessly ill being able to choose to die with dignity.
The film is obviously close to the heart of director Serkis in that his mother taught disabled children, and his sister is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Even more, he is a friend of Robin and Diana’s grown son Jonathan Cavendish, played as a young man in the film by Dean-Charles Chapman. Jonathan one of the film’s producers (he also produced the two Bridget Jones films and Elizabeth I: The Golden Age.
This review with a set of questions will be in the November 2017 issue of VP.