A rousing ode to living your life, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
The trailers for Breathe have not done it much favors, selling it as being little more than a cliched, dime a dozen biopic with a subject that makes it easy for awards consideration. But what those trailers have not touched on is the genuine charm that permeates throughout the entirety of its runtime. Nor do they highlight the sincere, old fashioned and almost storybook way in which director Andy Serkis chooses to bring it to the big screen.
Indeed, the film marks the long-awaited directorial debut of the world-renowned actor, who has made a name for himself in the industry through his multiple awards-worthy motion-capture performances in franchises like Lord of the Rings and the last three Planet of the Apes films. But despite all of Serkis’ history working with special effects, the actor has surprisingly chosen to make his directorial debut one devoid of almost any notable VFX or computer-generated characters.
Instead, the actor-director has made the complete opposite of that, with the story of how one man’s illness not only bonded together his family but helped to change and better the treatment of severely disabled hospital patients all around the world.
Beginning in 1957 England, the film quickly introduces us to its two leads, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy), a pair of young Brits who quickly meet, fall in love, and get married, much to the dismay of even their closest friends and siblings. But when Robin returns to Kenya with Diana to further pursue his business as a tea broker, he is suddenly struck with polio at the age of 28, which leaves him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without a medical respirator at his side at all times.
With a child on the way and a condition that does not allow him to fully provide for those he cares about, Robin quickly descends into a deep, suicidal depression. And it only lifts when Diana and his friends conspire to free him from his hospital confines to live the best possible life he possibly can, out in the world he had originally thought he’d never be able to enjoy again.
It’s fair to say that this sounds remarkably similar to some other notable biopics that have graced the silver screen over the years, including The Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind. But while the plot similarities and themes are undeniably present, Breathe manages to stand out from the rest thanks to the two lead performances by Foy and Garfield and the assured direction of Serkis.
Garfield has repeatedly proved his ability to bring real depth and emotions to his characters, even when he’s taking on extremely internal, non-verbal roles, and Breathe allows him to give his best performance to date. As Robin Cavendish, Garfield is limited to only using his face for a majority of his scenes, and the actor responds to the challenge by using the smallest of twitches or glances to say more than he could with his whole body.
His efforts are matched by Foy, who, after breaking through with Netflix’s The Crown, gives one of the best performances of the year so far in Breathe. She plays Diana as a hard-working, steadfast, and loving woman, who despite being placed in the background of some scenes, usually still finds ways to steal the spotlight out from under her male co-stars. The scenes between just her and Garfield are when the film is at its best, and it’s impossible not to watch them without feeling like they are both simultaneously rising up to meet the other’s talents.
At times, Breathe does struggle to move from some of its darker moments back into the its otherwise compassionate and lighthearted sensibilities. But through his work with composer Nitin Sawhney and cinematographer Robert Richardson, Serkis is able to inject hearty levels of emotion and authenticity into every scene of Breathe, which helps to make up for some of the more noticeable jumps in tone. And even more impressively, Serkis often shows enough restraint to let small, brief glances across a room between Foy and Garfield be the centerpiece moments of multiple scenes, rather than some more obvious — but less satisfying in the long run — stylistic alternatives.