The remarkable true story of Robin Cavendish is the stuff inspirational movie dramas are made of. A go-getting former British Army Captain who contracted polio in Africa in 1959, Cavendish found himself tragically paralysed from the neck down, but his life took a dramatic turn when his condition lead to the development of groundbreaking respiratory technology. Consequently Cavendish became an advocate of disabled rights and helped restore independence to many of those in need. His story now comes to the big screen in Breathe, produced by his son Jonathan, directed by Andy Serkis and starring Andrew Garfield as Cavendish and Claire Foy as his devoted wife, Diana. It's the theatrical debut of the Planet of the Apes star although it should be noted that Serkis shot his Jungle Book movie, now named Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, prior to this one. Both the latter project and Breathe see collaborations between Serkis and close friend and composer Nitin Sawhney, who gained a measure of international acclaim in 2012 with his new score for the remaster of Alfred Hitchcock's silent movie, The Lodger. There's no denying that with Breathe Sawhney has composed one of the year's most tender and beautiful works, carefully working around the subject matter to avoid melodrama whilst investing us in the characters.
Sawhney has carved out a reputation for his lush and emotive soundtracks for the likes of Human Planet and Midnight's Children, and Breathe won't disappoint those looking for the same. Warm is the word that leaps to mind: although there is a narrative arc to the music that grows more despondent as Cavendish struggles with his condition, Sawhney for the most part favours his lively personality and the deeply felt marriage he shared with Diana. It also, pleasingly, honours the time period with subtly fleeting jazz alto saxophone performed by Serkis himself, one of the many ways the instrumental palatte is kept fresh. Sawhney's self-confessed love of Vaughn Williams leaps to mind in the opening 'Robin's Drive', woodwinds and strings soaring and prancing in a quintessentially English manner. Curiously there's a sampled air to some of the backing instrumentation - perhaps alluding to the technological advances inherent in Robin's story, or maybe it's budgetary - but it's beautifully orchestrated and mixed nonetheless. And the warmth keeps coming: gentle glockenspiel and piano creates innocent tenderness in 'Cricket Match' whilst 'Country Drive and Ballroom' and 'Travelling to Kenya' are full-blooded majestic pieces that celebrate Robin's love of life.
The despairing strings of 'Getting Ill' mark a turning point, briefly countered by 'Meeting Baby Jonathan' before 'Doesn't Want To See The Baby' and 'Dreaming He Is Fine' restore the sense of solemnity. Nevertheless this isn't a score that langours in introspection for very long. The pizzicato strings and acoustic guitar of 'Buying the House' buoy the optimism once again, as does the mischievously upbeat nature of 'Moving the Bed' and 'Hospital Escape'. The surging strings and fluttering winds of 'Arrival Home' are gorgeous as is the steady piano of 'Connecting With Jonathan,' in which human warmth is still present but somewhat subsumed. 'Cleaning Ladies Outside' takes on the form of a sprightly waltz with a lovely cello interlude whilst 'The Last Dream' is an original song performed by Tina Grace and Jonathan Christie, applying a vinyl crackle for a bit of added nostalgia. 'Garden Party' is an altogether different prospect, a swinging piece of sax-led jazz with brushed snares and cymbals giving a snazzy air. 'Travelling to Spain' and 'Picnic by the Road' change the air again to something of a Spanish vibe with castanets and Sawhney himself on flamenco guitar. It's vivid music, full of personality and colour. Honkey-tonk piano (again with added vinyl crackle) is the order of the day in the all-too-brief 'Funding the Chairs' before 'Wheelchair Parade' restores the fulsome air of the score's main theme as Cavendish's story leads to a medical breakthrough.
As we approach the score's conclusion a greater sense of despondency begins to take over, particularly in the pensive duo of 'Arriving at the German Hospital' and 'Leaving the German Hospital'. The latter is something of an entree for the ensuing 'German Convention Speech' and 'After First Bleed' in which Robin's theme gets contemplative airings, the music brimming with latent sadness yet also happiness at a life well-lived. The score's highpoint then arrives in the triple-whammy of 'Goodbye', 'My Love My Life' and, especially, the staggeringly gorgeous 'Tell The Doctor It's Time', Sawhney's string writing reaching breathtaking heights. It's truly some of the most haunting music from any score this year, rounded off with reflective statements of Robin's theme 'Flashback Montage' and 'Credits' as his legacy passes into history.
Such a film as Breathe is a tricky one to score, as the true story needs to speak for itself without any overt manipulation from the composer. There's no denying Nitin Sawhney has pulled off this difficult task superbly, working hard to avoid maudlin soundscapes whilst also endeavouring to invest us in the joyous nature of Robin's personality. Certainly it's hard to imagine a lovelier piece of music than 'Tell The Doctor It's Time': that track alone is a fine testament to a remarkable individual who still inspires people to this day. If Sawhney and Andy Serkis' Jungle Book collaboration reaches the melodic heights of Breathe then we're in for a real treat.