While this biopic has the standard sumptuous production values of a British period drama, it’s also a lot more complex than expected. For his directing debut, Andy Serkis recounts the life of a man who is so genuinely inspirational that he never needs to crank up the sentimentality. Characters burst with personality, and the events unfold with some unexpected complications that make the movie strikingly edgy. It also, of course, looks gorgeous.
This is the story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), who travels to Kenya in 1958 with his pregnant wife Diana (Claire Foy) on tea-plantation business and is stricken with polio, paralysed from the neck down and needing a ventilator to breathe. They move back to England, where Robin gets increasingly annoyed by his life in hospital. So he convinces Diana to take him home, against the doctors’ advice, and gets his inventor pal Teddy (Hugh Bonneville) to design a chair with a built-in respirator so he can get out and about. This is a revolution for him, and he becomes an advocate in helping severely disabled people like him find independence from hospital care so they can life their lives.
Because Robin is such a positive force, and since everyone has such a brisk sense of humour, he never feels very disabled in this movie. He has a full, vibrant life with his family, as they travel around Europe having various adventures. And yet there are continual reminders of his fragility: without the respirator, he only has minutes to live.
At the centre, Garfield and Foy shine as a no-nonsense, very British couple facing these challenges with good humour and inventive solutions. But they also have some very, very dark emotions along the way. And there isn’t a hint of self-pity in either of them. The supporting cast is packed with ace scene-stealers, including Bonneville, Tom Hollander (times two as Diana’s twin brothers), Stephen Mangan (as Robin’s forward-thinking doctor) and Ed Speleers (as his best friend).
Since Robin and Diana’s son Jonathan produced the film, it’s not surprising that they look almost superhuman in their positivity, but there’s a layer of gritty realism under the surface that continually catches us off-guard. More unexpected is the way some real events have been altered for the movie, perhaps to push the emotional resonance. Even so, this is a riveting story of resilience as Robin refuses to just be a survivor: he wants to triumph over his condition, and he changes the world as a result.