When adventurous British soul Robin Cavendish is struck down and paralysed by polio while in Africa, he relies on his loyal and determined wife Diana to not only survive but truly live, becoming a medical marvel as one of the longest lived responaut survivors of the disease and a tireless campaigner for the disabled— as actor-turned-director Andy Serkis captures an unlikely enduring romance . . . in biographical British period drama style.
At first glance a sweeping true-story period drama centred around enduring love and disability might not seem like the obvious choice for Serkis to make his directorial debut with, particularly having cut his teeth as a second unit director for Peter Jackson on ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy, not to mention establishing production company and digital motion capture studio ‘The Imaginarium’—which will co-produce his upcoming take on ‘The Jungle Book’.
Yet Serkis has experience with the devastating disease in question, having played polio survivor and British punk pioneer Ian Dury in 2010’s ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’. So now encouraged by ‘Breathe’s’ producer and Imaginarium co-founder Jonathan Cavendish—who also happens to be the real life son of the film’s main protagonist—versatile character actor and grandmaster of motion capture becomes fully-fledged director with a glossy and poignant tale of unconditional love . . . and a story of human dignity in disability.
Andrew Garfield stars as former British army captain and adventurer Robin Cavendish himself, who is completely incapacitated by polio in 1958 while living in Kenya with his young pregnant wife Diana (Claire Foy), permanently paralysed from the neck down and kept alive by a mechanical ventilator. Yet thanks to sheer will and courage, resuscitated by the undying love and devotion of his wife and young son Jonathan (Dean-Charles Chapman), goes from the first person in his condition to leave a hospital to many other firsts, becoming a campaigner for the rights of the disabled and a medical aid co-developer to make their lives bearable—with a little help from his friends of course, including his twin brothers in-law Bloggs and David Blacker (Tom Hollander on double duty) and creator of crucial medical contraptions Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).
It doesn’t take long into the film to realise where its story execution and stylistic inspiration comes from, and the similarities with 2014’s ‘The Theory of Everything’ are clear to see, although ‘Breathe’ doesn’t quite have the finesse or subtlety of James Marsh’s Oscar-winner. It does however have the style and grace, featuring top-notch production and costume designs to re-create mid to late 20th century styles and some wonderful cinematography from the great Robert Richardson(Platoon, Kill Bill: Vol. 1), capturing the majesty and adventure of the British and African landscapes which surrounded Cavendish—not to mention a melancholy score from Nitin Sawhney.
There’s no doubt that ‘Breathe’ is a touching and bewitching drama, but it’s not as heart-wrenching of affecting as you might want or expect, never displaying any real edge or grit when it comes to the characters and generally staying clear of the down & dirty realities of the care giving part of the narrative—apart from a couple of bloody moments that is. Serkis is clearly playing it safe in terms of his narrative choices and the execution, treading familiar ground in terms of a charming and poignant ‘stiff upper lip’ British period drama with a message, occasionally steering it perhaps a little too close to TV movie territory—albeit an immaculately crafted and beautifully designed one.
Yet that charm plus a healthy supply of dry British wit and humour are what helps the film to win your affections and make it truly work, also serving as a means to deliver a message about the importance of hope and laughing in the face of tragedy and despair.
But any success the film has is ultimately down to the performances of its two leads, as Andrew Garfield is for the third film in a row drawn to a character grounded in reality who faces mental and psychological anguish with dignity and integrity, using the protagonist’s limitations to his advantage in yet another powerful turn—meanwhile Claire Foy is equally impressive and delivers a performance of restraint and grace as a selfless and devoted soul herself.
Like many a film with a message, no doubt ‘Breathe’ will be described as an ‘important’ film, a moniker which can often be off-putting and is sometimes a convenient piece of social masking for the lack of quality in a drama—but in this case it’s entirely accurate, as it shines an uncommon cinematic light on the issue of disability and conveys the importance of further integrating the disabled into society, thus helping to free them from the prison of their condition.
The Bottom Line…
Part classic enduring romance and biographical family drama, part medical history lesson, and all strong message about human dignity in disability; ‘Breathe’ may not be as deeply moving as you might expect, nor is it as edgy or slick in narrative as some of the dramas which inspired it—but thanks to accomplished performances and expert cinematic craftsmanship, Andy Serkis’s directorial debut is a captivating and eye-opening drama with plenty of heart and charm . . . and with some important points to make.
‘Breathe’ is out on the 27th of October in the UK, and on the 13th of October in the US.