Opens: December 26
Genre: Struggle against adversity drama
Duration: 117 minutes
Opening on Boxing Day is this true-life, British struggle-against-adversity tale, which recounts the experiences of tea-trader Robin Cavendish and his wife Diana after the Englishman was paralysed in 1958 by polio and only able to breathe with the aid of a respirator.
The rule of thumb when filming this kind of potentially static scenario is to manage to focus not just on the debilitating condition but to emphasise the personal struggle to make a life worth living – think of Irish author Christy Brown’s ability to use his feet to paint and write in My Left Foot. That way hope, optimism and human determination are balanced against the moments of despair.
Wisely that’s the approach adapted here by first-time director Andy Serkis, best known as the actor behind the motion-capture character of Gollum in both The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.
Following his diagnosis, Andrew Garfield’s Robin is initially depressed, self-pitying and suicidal. But thanks to his wife’s determination (Claire Foy – Elizabeth II in Netflix series The Crown) he finds the will to live, acknowledges their infant son for the first time, and the couple set about slowly trying to transform his existence.
Initially this means staging a rebellion against the doctors who refuse to let him leave hospital, then fashioning a home-made wheelchair incorporating the necessary breathing apparatus, and finally customising a van that allows him to travel and lead a more varied life.
There’s no denying Garfield and Foy give fine performances in the lead roles, expressing the pain, despair and frustration as well as the determination and lighter moments of relief that the story requires, and the film is handsomely photographed, if it all feels a little too consistently honeyed.
That last detail is telling, though. Preventing the film from becoming as inspiring as it so clearly wants to be is that Serkis seems unable to entirely trust the audience. His habit of underlining the moments of uplift ultimately tips the film into triteness.
The opening sets up a warm mood by depicting our couple meeting at a very pukka cricket match during a perfect English summer, but the golden glow never seems to fade. Britain has some sunny weather but not this much – it’s as if Serkis can’t bring himself to take his foot off the feel-good pedal.
It’s not enough to have our lovers embracing against the setting sun, the soundtrack has to spoon over Bing Crosby crooning True Love. “Yes,” I wanted to yell, “we get it – they’re in love!” When Robin addresses a room full of skeptics at a medical conference, he not only wins them over but they of course have to rise at the conclusion of his speech in a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.
There’s no question that the story is well worth telling, but how much viewers enjoy the film or feel disengaged will depend on their degree of tolerance for cliché and manipulation.
The subtlety, intelligence and lack of sentimentality that helped make two earlier films about true-life paralysed characters, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside, so memorable and deeply affecting might have helped raise this one from the slough of mediocrity.
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