Breathe (British Film Festival)
Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander
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It is a shame that the film isn’t quite as innovative as the people it is portraying…
Toward the final act of Andy Serkis’s directorial debut Breathe, polio sufferer Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) asks a room of medical professionals in 1970s Germany if he, a disabled person, is viewed as some kind of creature, or as a fellow human being who deserves the same opportunities, dignity and respect as an able bodied person. Robin’s speech not only gives a voice to the thematic focus of the film but also to the realisation that even though Western society has made great strides in the treatment and acceptance of disability in all its forms, there is still a long way to go in removing the stigma altogether. It is this kind of thematic consideration that gives Breathe, an otherwise typical crowd pleasing love story, an extra dimension of relevancy.
It’s the late 1950s and Robin has a very British meet-cute with Diana (Claire Foy) at a cricket match and they quickly fall in love and marry. Before long, Robin is whisking Diana away to Africa where he has a tea brokerage. Then shortly after Diana falls pregnant, Robin is diagnosed with polio and suddenly becomes bed-ridden and hooked up to a respirator, which is the only thing keeping him alive. Returning to Britain, Diana is determined to improve her husband’s quality of life and so begins the couple’s journey toward making innovations to alleviate Robin’s suffering, culminating in the “Cavendish Chair”, a wheelchair with a built in respirator which allowed those with polio to lead more active lives.
Produced by the Cavendish’s son Jonathan to chronicle the contribution his parents made to disability medicine, Breathe was the opening night gala screening for the London Film Festival and, as is usual with the festival’s opener, is an old fashioned period love story which has at its centre an important message about overcoming adversity. Without wallowing in misery porn however, screenwriter William Nicholson peppers the narrative with comedy, portraying Robin and Diana from a position of strength, as people who can find humour in even the direst of circumstances. One gathers this comes from Jonathan’s recollections of his parents, but the levity goes a long way not just in gaining insight into their characters but as a way for the audience to connect with Robin through his disability and not just because of it.
Known more as the greatest motion capture performer working today, it might come as a surprise that Andy Serkis would choose a film about disability innovation as his debut feature but it is worth mentioning that Serkis did play singer/songwriter and polio sufferer Ian Drury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll so he already has an affinity for the subject matter. Luckily, it appears that all that time spent hanging out with Peter Jackson, Matt Reeves, and JJ Abrams has rubbed off on the actor as Breathe is very well polished and put together, if a little pedestrian. It is a compelling story well told, but there is really not much going on under the hood that would elevate the material beyond the comfortably traditional biopic.
The central performances are well balanced, with Garfield and Foy imbuing their characters with enough personality to feel like the real people they are obviously based on and with enough chemistry together to feel their relationship is earned. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough, but the film never asks them to go beyond “British period drama” mode, particularly Hugh Bonneville who has probably shown up because he is required to appear in all British films by Royal Decree. The biggest performance opportunity, unfortunately, is a missed one, with Tom Hollander playing Diana’s twin brothers. Hollander is, as always, terrific, but is given so little to do other than hang around in the background and say a line here and there that it boggles the mind why Serkis didn’t just hire some real life twins.
Breathe brings humour to its worthy subject matter but still treats it with the respect it deserves, highlighting many themes that show how far we have come but also how far we still have to go in our relationship to disabled people as a society. It is a shame that the film isn’t quite as innovative as the people it is portraying and telegraphs its emotional moments heavily. At almost two hours it also begins to drag toward the end but the film still has important things to say right up until its final moments, particularly about the legal issues surrounding euthanasia, if only it found more of an engaging way to get there.