Best known for his performances as Gollum and Caesar and making a career out of wearing skin-tight motion capture suits Andy Serkis makes his directional debut with the romantic drama Breathe.
Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was an active man in his late 20s when he meets Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), and the pair quickly falls in love. In Kenya on a business trip the pair get married and have a child: but Robin gets infected with polio and becomes paralyzed from the neck down. When he returns to England Robin falls into a suicidal depression, but his wife is determined that he lives: their actions could benefit the lives of other disabled people.
Breathe was an incredibly personal story for producer Jonathan Cavendish (best known for producing the Bridget Jones movies) because it was about his parents. Jonathan Cavendish was one of the driving forces behind the film: he runs the production company, and he commissioned William Nicholson to write the screenplay. Films about disability have been met with success – examples being The Theory of Everything, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Intouchables. Breathe could easily follow in the mold of those films: it had the cast, and Serkis shows he has as much talent behind the camera.
Since being dumped as Spider-Man Andrew Garfield has focused on starring in prestige films and got award nominations for his role in Hacksaw Ridge. Playing a character becoming disabled is often a great way for actors to get awards attention and Garfield would be deserving of another Academy Award and BAFTA nomination. Garfield portrayed all the aspects of Robin’s character – from the fun-loving able-bodied man and being good-humored when surrounded by his friends and family while also showing his depression he suffered after being hospitalized. The biggest challenge Garfield faced was when Robin was first hospitalized and unable to talk so he could only act with his eyes and simple facial expressions and his talents were fully on display. Even after Robin moves into his home, he still suffers from bouts of sadness because he knows there are certain things he can’t do for his family.
Foy is also on a career-high after winning an Emmy for her leading role as Queen Elizabeth II. Foy has always been a talented actress, and she is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Foy was committed to her role as a determined young woman willing to take on the medical establishment, learn how to care for her husband and is absolutely devoted to him. It is a strong performance from Foy, and with Garfield they made a great pairing.
Breathe also had a fine supporting cast with the notable members being Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, and Stephan Mangan. Hollander provided some humor as Diana’s twin brothers and Bonneville played the inventor of Robin’s respirator wheelchair. Mangan was the biggest surprise because he is normally a comedic actor in the UK, yet in Breathe he played his role straight, and he gave a fine performance as a doctor and campaigner for disability rights who works with Robin.
Serkis shows he has a director’s eye and has a lot potential as a filmmaker. Breathe was a great looking film, paying great attention to period detail, was visually impressive (especially the scene in the German hospital) and had some bright cinematography thanks to Academy Award winner Robert Richardson. There are some great emotional sequences like when Robin sees the sky for the first time after getting paralyzed, and it was a moment of triumph when Robin first uses his wheelchair.
For someone who is squeamish about medical procedures Breathe made me squirm more than any horror film ever would. Scenes showing Robin receiving a tracheotomy and Diana trying to use the feeding tube made me whine. And this was a film that had a 12A rating in the UK.
The problem with Breathe is the screenplay. William Nicholson is known for writing bio-pics: his credits include Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Unbroken and his work on Breathe shares the same problems – he tries to put too much in the film. Breathe came off as episodic, a series of events instead of being a cohesive story. The film could be broken down into small segments, and this structure would have been more suited to television.
Breathe could be easily seen as either a weepy or awards bait. It has the acting leads who are worthy of being nominated, and fans of romance films will enjoy the story of love and commitment between the Cavendishs. Serkis shows he’s got talent behind the camera, but he was unable to mask the problems with the screenplay.