Film Review: Breathe

Mo-cap master Andy Serkis directs this handsomely produced, mildly affecting biopic of Robin Cavendish, polio-stricken advocate for the disabled.
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Barely has the drama Breathe set off racing in late-1950s England, introducing vibrant, fast-driving sportsman and ex-soldier Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), before the daring lad catches sight of a willful, rosy-cheeked lass (Claire Foy), who’ll become the love of his life. And no sooner has he learned her name—Diana—than the film ushers us through their betrothal and honeymoon to Robin’s first ominous stumble and spill, followed swiftly by full-blown illness, then the devastating diagnosis of polio.

Struck down in his prime years of racing cars and batting cricket, Robin is sentenced to a life of pain, paralysis and permanent attachment to a respirator. Given Diana’s stalwart commitment to her husband, this means she too is sentenced to live with Robin’s illness and limitations, attending to his every basic and bodily need, while also raising their son, Jonathan. With patience and understanding, she attends Robin’s emotional needs as well, maintaining hope and good humor for both of them through dismally dark times.

Most pertinently to this story of the Cavendish couple’s courageous journey, Diana supports her husband’s determined effort to defy his doctors and enjoy a life outside the hospital’s polio ward. Breathe hurries on its painstaking mission to mark every milestone of their progress, following a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator), guided by first-time feature director Andy Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish (Bridget Jones’s Diary), son of Robin and Diana. From flying planes over Kenya and enjoying countryside picnics, the young lovers’ world turns quickly to bedpans, depression, then the uphill struggle for patients’ rights.

As depicted by helmer Serkis, neither the Cavendishes’ fairytale courtship nor their battles against narrow-minded administrators yield much suspense or nuance, beyond Foy’s steely performance. Garfield, while aptly conveying the humbling effect that sickness has on Robin, lands nowhere near subtle. Even overacting, however, he contributes to the powerfully intimate presentation of Robin’s condition, as shot by three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson. An early hospital scene—which firmly captures Robin’s, or any patient’s, sense of imprisonment within an ill body and tethered to machines inside a drab institution—defines how medical science had yet to provide chronic polio patients with the means to enjoy a decent quality of life.

Persuasive when it focuses on, or wallows in, the necessarily dour clinical and custodial points of patient care, Breathe unhelpfully speeds past or omits minor but relevant connective details. A pair of identical twins, David and Bloggs, portrayed with the aid of special effects by one Tom Hollander, hover protectively around Diana, but their relationship to her, or purpose in the story, is ill-defined. (They are her brothers, it turns out.) And Hugh Bonneville appears out of nowhere playing someone’s family friend Teddy Hall, who assists Robin in designing and engineering a wheelchair capable of carrying a viable respirator. With a respirator onboard, Robin can escape the confines of the sick ward, and truly taste life again.

Blockbuster cinema’s go-to motion-capture performer, Serkis exhibits greater facility with the film’s seamless Hollander-as-twins visual effects than with molding the story. Rarely in the telling is there any doubt that Robin and Teddy will succeed in gifting responauts the world over with the freedom of mobility, or of how Robin’s fight to live on his own terms, or to die on his own terms, will be decided.

But it’s Diana, neither a clinician nor an engineer, who is portrayed as being absolutely vital to any potential success. Foy holds the film’s center as a woman of saintly compassion, the human embodiment of life support. Written as a gorgeous paragon of spousal devotion, Diana becomes in Foy’s deft hands the film’s tart antidote against the by-the-numbers approach to beating out a plot. For despite its ethos of righteous resistance and bucking the system, Breathe is at heart a wholesomely pretty prestige picture, not wont to truly sting or provoke, except to challenge those who have a hard time stomaching scenes replete with bodily fluids.

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