Andy Serkis makes his directorial debut with Breathe, and since he’s the crown prince of ‘movie magic’ I was curious to see if he’d be able to resist some kind of special effect in what, by all reasonable stereotypical expectations, should be a pretty straightforward affair. Well I’m proud to report that Breathe features one actor playing twins. They often share screen-time and even interact. Cheers, Mr. Serkis, I knew you wouldn’t disappoint.
Beyond this sole special effect (Andrew Garfield’s giant false front teeth don’t really count), Serkis has proven himself quite the filmmaker. While the film’s content may be all too familiar to anyone whose seen a, um, disease drama before, Breathe separates itself from the pack in its production. So many period flicks feature sweeping landscapes made entirely with green screens digital know-how, and while it can be effective, it’s always noticeable. The vistas in Breathe appear to be mostly genuine, if not entirely (if I’m wrong on this, I will be very embarrassed), and the sheer tangibility of it makes the film’s setting much more encompassing, which doubles as a lubricant for some of the hokeyer plot/story elements.
Breathe tells the true story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous young couple facing a surprise polio diagnosis. Robin contracts the disease during an African tea-purchasing expedition shortly after their marriage and just before the birth of their son. With Robin suddenly immobile and unable to breathe(!) without mechanical assistance, the couple’s jet-setting lifestyle is forced to take on a new flavor.
The film struggles to find its pace at first, diving head-first into the central romance and showering us with characters at such a clip that it becomes frustrating. Before Robin and Diana even seem to know one another, they’re married. Before she can say “I’m pregnant,” he’s got polio, and before you can say “he may never speak again,” lo and behold he’s learned to talk! It’s a lot, but perhaps some of this hinderance is due to my own preconceptions about what Breathe would be. By the time all of the pieces are in play it becomes easier to shake off the excess plot/character weight and filter the experience to its core story. Breathe isn’t as typical as it looks. It’s not about a man beating a disease, nor about the strength of a romance, but rather a tale of finding joy from new perspective. I dreaded a punishing, sad melodrama in which characters mourn their circumstances, but ended up getting something a bit lighter and more celebratory.
Our central players Adam Garfield and Claire Foy commit the romance, even if it takes an act for the two characters to register as fully connected. It’s a delight to watch as Robin and Diana rise to the challenge of the former’s illness. When they do face setbacks it’s easy to believe that their collective strength will ultimately succeed. With movies which depict a disability I can never help myself but to look for holes in it. So many times you’ll see a supposedly blind character who can definitely see, or a quadriplegic who is adept at using his legs for support. Yes, it’s a dumb complaint, but it always drives me nuts, much the same way that it does when a character plays a guitar beautifully … and it’s clear that the actor has never touched one. I am pleased to report that Andrew Garfield is exactly as immobile as his character should be.
But before I go off sounding like an Insensitive Ivan, allow me to praise Breathe for showing just how recently it was considered commonplace to treat the severely disabled as prisoners. The film makes it clear that this was only partially due to shame and mostly due to technological limitations, but the way we used to do things was awful nonetheless. Cavendish was a tireless advocate for the disabled. He helped to create multiple devices used for granting freedom to non-ambulatory people. He spoke on behalf of fellow polio sufferers, using himself as an example of somebody who, given the right support, can choose to live rather than to simply exist.
Despite being a pretty simple story, it’s this which gives Breathe its reason for being. If a man who can’t draw a single breath without mechanical assistance can change the world, then anything is possible.
This is the first feature film produced by The Imaginarium, a production company specializing in motion-capture technology. Their work can be seen in films like War for the Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: Episode VII, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The studio was founded in 2011 by Andy Serkis and … Johnathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana. Cool.
Breathe opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.