Andy Serkis takes one ambitious step behind the camera, in his debut directing effort ‘Breathe’. In such an effort, his film tells the inspiring true love story between Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy), an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease. When Robin is struck down by polio at the age of 28, he is confined to a hospital bed and given only a few months to live. With the help of Diana’s twin brothers (Tom Hollander) and the groundbreaking ideas of inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana dare to escape the hospital ward to seek out a full and passionate life together; raising their young son, traveling and devoting their lives to helping other polio patients. ‘Breathe’ is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images.
For the first film in Serkis’s promising career in the director’s chair, there’s a lot of proof that he is a valuable asset to telling such remarkable stories. ‘Breathe’, is an overall passing success for Serkis, but does suffer from a lot of growing pains that comes with experience in commanding a presence beyond the screen. This is certainly a story that deserves to be told for just how revolutionary that it was in the benefit of treating bed-ridden patients with the kind of freedom that they rightfully deserve. Behind that freedom is a sufferer of Polio himself, Robin Cavendish, whose own experiences as being locked away like a science experiment by those medical professionals in charge of his daily routine, prompted him to change the game in creating the first ever motorized wheelchair with its own breathing apparatus. This story stays firmly gripped on that thesis, but there’s lots of experimenting from the director himself that displays his experience in being so tightly wrapped in productions that involved his puppeteering for practical and C.G properties that carved out the name of a revolutionary, a lot like Cavendish, and that’s why Serkis feels like the right man for the job here.
From the very beginning, we are treated to a visual presentation that transports us not only on screen, but also off of it for the way it illuminates a taste of yesterday. There’s a feel within ‘Breathe’ that gives off the sense that we’re not only watching a film that takes place over various decades of the past, but also one that was made during those respective eras for the touch in tinsel that you just don’t see anymore. The cinematography is gorgeous in all of its sun-infused depictions. The editing feels patient, letting the audience soak in the most of every establishing environment whether it be inside or out. The musical tones of Nitin Sawhney pay tribute to the age when piano and light orchestral tones filled the air and ears of those immersed in a story, and felt like it establishes many of the moods and themes within the picture without coming off as meandering. Besides all of this, Serkis himself experiments with some very unorthodox methods of camera angles and framing that constantly keeps the pulse of creativity beating with each new sequence of discovery. For me, some of my favorites were those displaying a POV kind of shot for the kinds of feels that Cavendish himself is forced to endure. I also love Serkis’s commitment to supplanting the camera firmly on Garfield here, letting his facials tell the story of the pain and seclusion that he feels from his tragic disposition.
The screenplay is definitely the weakness of the film for me, and that’s because it sets a precedent early on in the first act that leaves very little wiggle room for the obvious paralyzing that’s coming. So much happens between the relationship of Robin and Diana in the opening twenty minutes of this movie that never really grant us that stark contrast of positivity between them before it all flies south. You will take great empathy on characters if you feel like you’ve grown with their relationship, and sadly ‘Breathe’ never allows us this opportunity as the two meet, fall in love, get married, move away together, and have a child within a rushed first act that completely throws off the pacing for the rest of the film. The second and third acts do maintain an air of timely precision to them, and I greatly enjoyed the education lesson that I was being taught here despite knowing nothing about the real life of Robin. This is definitely a must watch for someone who ever wants to learn about the jaded life that he lived, but not one that ever gets cerebral enough to resonate with the audience the psychology of being saddled with such a curse, instilling a mindset within me that kind of reads like a Wikipedia page without ever feeling the heat from the seat.
What did leave a lasting impression on me was the film’s constant theme that hammers home the will to live when all else fails. The script for the film can sometimes get a little heavy handed with the ideas that it hammers home, but I felt that the need to express ones desire for hope played marvelously here, and keeps Robin moving in a way that he not only defies the odds, but also defies those with the face of adversity who scoff at his decision to live with freedom. Early on in the movie, we hear about a group of soldiers in an old wise tale who stood strong until they no longer had the will to live. Once they gave up, their hearts stopped beating, and they became another in the growing statistic. Besides this serving as an obvious foreshadowing of what’s to come for our protagonist, it does communicate what is at stake here for the heart of this young man when the rest of his body has unfortunately already given up on him. His will to live is his strongest muscle, and it provides the air of hope that Robin, as well as us watching beyond the screen need to combat the inevitability of what is coming.
Also adding points to the cause are two valuable lead performances that the movie depends upon repeatedly to get it over the hump of a faulty screenplay. Andrew Garfield continues the role that he has been on with appearances in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Silence’, but it’s here where he gives perhaps his most physically hindering performance to date. As Robin, Garfield provides enough animated personality in his facial reactions and limited vocal capacity to place this turn right next to those previous two heralded performances. Garfield’s accent also stays committed to detail despite being forced to endure some of the biggest teeth props that I have ever seen in my life. Claire Foy is also a breath of fresh air. Diana defines what a loving wife can and should be, and Foy’s unshakeable perseverance to the love she feels for Robin brings a much-needed soft romantic side to this story that shouldn’t be understated.
THE VERDICT – In more experienced hands, ‘Breathe’ could’ve been an Oscar contender, but because this uneven screenplay does little to benefit Serkis storytelling capabilities, the film just gets by resting on its lazy laurels. The work of Garfield and Foy are among the many highlights, and a refreshing throwback to the golden age of Hollywood romance films gives this director promise for future endeavors, but there’s not enough oxygen in the stuffy atmosphere to ever prolong the life of this familiar true life melodrama.