It is not for nothing that the religious practice of meditation uses concentration upon breathing to still the mind. It is the fundamental activity that is with us from birth until, er, our last breath. Without it we are literally snuffed out. In this touching British drama, the fight for breath and the fight for the dignity of an independent life are artfully fused. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Director Andy Serkis (yes, that Andy Serkis – the protean soul behind Gollum in Lord of the Rings) has his first go behind the camera, and a pretty decent job it is too. The film revolves around the somewhat unbelievable life of Robin Cavendish; it turns out to be the remarkable story of a remarkable man. For once the ‘true story’ element is not just a gesture, it stays with you all along the tortuous but uplifting journey.
Cavendish seems like a quintessential Englishman of a certain era. In the breezy set-up scenes in the 1960s we see him hitting an effortless six at a village cricket game and then snaring his lovely wife Diana (Claire Foy), all before bounding off to Africa to sell tea and make his fortune. In Kenya he plays the role of an imperial trader as effortlessly as he does everything else. It is a rosy-colonial view of Africa, but legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson (Tarantino’s go-to man) makes it look so damn good it is gobsmacking. Ironically, it is in this paradise that things go slightly, and then fully, ‘tits up’.
As usual these days, a film’s trailer will spoil things by showing you how the disease that Simon gets affects his life, and those around him. Without dwelling on that we can say that he shows a kind of heroism that would make most of us feel pusillanimous. Along the way he overcomes understandable despair and, in collaboration with his friends and physicians, makes life better for countless afflicted people both then and now.
Serkis knows better than to get in the way of such a story. He also gets great performances from his cast. Andrew Garfield (whose mixed English/American heritage enables him to pass easily as a stiff upper lipped Brit) manages to make the stereotypes work for him. With this, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, under his belt he seems to be cornering the market in exemplary heroism. Claire Foy (fresh from the TV series The Crown and very much on her way to full stardom) has a role equally close to being unbelievable but she plays so well with Garfield that you buy the whole thing. A couple of scenes that they have together are off the tearjerker scale but don’t kid yourself that you won’t be blubbing along with the rest of them.
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.
The Planet of the Apes redux has kind of been the quiet achiever of the modern blockbuster milieu, quietly chugging away, putting out pretty great sci-fi adventures every few years, and fading from public consciousness in between releases. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good, smart, and heartfelt origin story for the venerable Apes franchise (which already had one, to be fair, but these days genetic tomfoolery flies much better than time travel). 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes moved the timeline forward, putting us in a post-pandemic dystopia and setting the stage for the final installment: War for the Planet of the Apes.
Except we don’t really get a War, but more of a Running Skirmish, which would certainly make for a less enticing title, if a more accurate one. When we return to our simian apocalypse the nascent Ape Nation under noble chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) is fighting a guerrilla ‘gorilla’ war against a human army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson doing a kind of redneck Colonel Kurtz). When the Colonel kidnaps Caesar’s infant son, Cornelius (!), Caesar and a few of his closest companions, including the wise orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval); the loyal chimp, Rocket (Terry Notary); and the brave gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) head off on a rescue mission, while the rest of the tribe try to make it to a place of refuge far from the combative humans.
One of the key achievements and charms of the modern Apes series is the way it has made us as viewers completely believe in and empathise with non-human characters. Taking advantage of cutting edge CGI and motion capture technology, coupled with the staggering performance chops of Andy Serkis, the series has given us in Caesar perhaps the greatest non-human protagonist in film history, and put him in a world populated by creatures as believable and worthy of investment as himself.
But the thing is, that’s not enough – you have to give such a character something to do, and stakes that feel tangible. It’s enough now, three movies in, to marvel at the technical achievements of bringing Caesar and co. to life – if they weren’t “real” for us already, the whole exercise would be a wasted effort. For all that the “rescue the kid” plot is a sturdy workhorse, it’s not used to particularly good effect here; there’s precious little sense of urgency, and War just plods along, wallowing in its own sense of importance. We get plenty of (furry) navel gazing, some fine speechifying, and a ponderous sense of implacable destiny forcing us into conflict – but precious little action and, lest we forget, action is character.
It’s the little details that keep War alive, rather than the actual main plot. Along the way, Maurice adopts a mute human girl that he names Nova (Amiah Miller), which should give fans of the ’68 Planet of the Apes a little rill of pleasure. More interesting things are afoot in the human camp: for one thing, we have turncoat apes called “donkeys”, remnants of Koba’s rebels from the previous movie, working as scouts and labourers for the humans, in an echo of the Indian scouts of the Plains Wars; for another, there’s a second pandemic on the loose, one that renders humans mute and bestial, which pushes the scenario further towards what we saw in the ’68 Apes.
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t stop the overall film from feeling underwhelming. Other wrinkles, like Steve Zahn’s tiresome comic relief as Bad Ape, a circus monkey turned eccentric hermit, actively detract from proceedings – why are we hanging out with this guy when there’s a kidnapped kid to rescue, a budding civilisation to save, and an apocalyptic battle to be fought?
We do get that battle in the end, but it comes courtesy of a plot machination (one that would be ‘spoilerish’ to divulge) that feels counter to the stated themes that have come before, delivering spectacle but not a completely satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes feels more like it’s ticking boxes to get to a foregone conclusion rather than arriving there organically. The film we get is serviceable enough, and it’s never not going to be fun seeing a chimp cavalry charge human infantry, or a gorilla act as the loader on a machine gun emplacement, there’s nothing really being done or said here that wasn’t already covered more effectively in the previous installment.