Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe shares some similarities with 2014’s The Theory of Everything. For one, it’s the story of a severely disabled man and his quest to fulfill a passion. In Breathe, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) becomes stricken with polio and ultimately is confined to a hospital bed and then a wheel chair. He needs a respirator to breathe. Cavendish will never stop trying to earn support and fair treatment for disabled people. In The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking essentially does the same thing. I’m not trying to diminish one story over the other. They are both harrowing tales of achievement, and great individual stories.
Rather, I am comparing the storytelling at hand. Sure there are movies that mirror each other sometimes. But with how recent The Theory of Everything was released, its hard not to compare these two films. Theory of Everything is a better film. While Breathe, is one that at times feels a little watered down, cliched and boring. Nonetheless, it has some terrific performances and excellent cinematography to at least keep the viewer engaged for its near two hour runtime.
Breathe follows Robin and Diana Cavendish, a couple living in Kenya as Robin works there. At age 28, Robin takes on a battle with the disease Polio. Along the way, Robin and Diana’s son is born whom was concieved before Robin fell ill. Diana is played by the wonderfully talented Claire Foy. The story of Breathe is very much a romance at its core. It shows the bond and strength it takes to get though the issues the couple is going through.
Prior to falling ill, Robin is atheltic, charming and altogether extremely healthy. But as life often does, it changes rapidly. Confined to a bed, unable to speak, Robin battles his will to live. Garfield expertly navigates this role during a lengthy stretch of the film that requires him to be mute. His request to let him die is about as dark as the film ever gets. Breathe is the type of film that is gunning for awards season acclaim. But the light and fluffy romance at the films center ultimately feels distracting and evidence that Serkis is unwilling to take the direction of the film to darker places and really pull something special out. Perhaps that is hampered by producer Jonathon Cavendish, the son of Robin.
However, the lead performances in Breathe are nothing short of spectacular. Andrew Garfield is a revelation. Garfield is able to convey a wide range of emotions using facial expressions. He gives a solemn and yet believable performance. Foy is also terrific. The audience can almost see the toll the disease has taken on her. It adds a element of dramatic depth to the film knowing the audience knows how she feels, and Robin doesn’t. They are nuanced performances and ones where the characters don’t feel they need to blow an emotional gasket to explain the way they feel.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography is also stunning. There is almost a classic feel to the way he shoots the film. In the vein of some of the great romantic epics in cinema history, Richardson uses vibrant colors and gorgeous sweeping shots of mountainsides, valleys and the countryside which the Cavendish’s inhabit. Adding to the retro feel there is a constant symmetry to the way he sets up scenes. One can harken back to Kubrick’s work and even as recently, though to a lesser extent, Wes Anderson as a possible inspiration for his work here.
Breathe, while enjoyable as a whole, ultimately plays its subject material a bit too cute to really stand out. Perhaps its the vested interest that Serkis and Cavendish, who are long time friends, have in this story. In a way, Cavendish is paying homage to his hero, making a film about his parents. It’s a truly inspiring story with heart and an important story to learn the history of the work it celebrates. Cavendish and the man who designed his respirator chair command a lot of respect for their ability to transform the lives of disabled people. Serkis has some talent behind the camera, and I’m excited to see what he does next. Yet, Breathe does ultimately end up with the glossy, made-for-TV-movie feel, and as it gets as deep as it goes, it has a hard time shaking that feeling.
Have you seen the film? What did you think? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!
Rated: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images)
Runtime: 117 minutes
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Ben Lloyd-Taylor
Directed by: Andy Serkis