As an actor, Andy Serkis is known for innovation and risk taking, the most obvious examples being his motion capture performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Planet of the Apes reboots. If people are finally starting to realize that motion capture acting really is acting, it’s largely due to the work of Andy Serkis. He’s also extremely intentional as an actor—everything he does conveys something about his character or the story to the audience. Given that context, it’s surprising and disappointing that Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe, is a raft of clichés from beginning to end, resulting in an excruciatingly dull film that’s a chore to sit through.
Breathe is based on the real-life story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife Diana (Claire Foy). We first meet them at a garden party (Breathe is oddly coy about financial matters, but all the central characters seem to be at least comfortably well off), where it’s love at first sight for the handsome Robin and the beautiful Diana. Despite a bit of familial opposition (Diana’s brothers, both played by Tom Hollander, object that they don’t know anything about Robin), but before you know it they’re married and Diana is accompanying Robin on tea-buying trips to Kenya.
Then one day Robin falls ill with what turns out to be polio. At the age of 28, he’s transformed from a successful businessman and father-to-be to a bedridden man dependent on a breathing tube to stay alive. He had a lot of company, of course, in the days before the polio vaccine, but unlike many other polio patients he refuses to accept that his fate will be to spend the rest of his life on a hospital ward. Aided by the profoundly steadfast Diana, her brothers, and a few helpful medical professionals, Robin manages to leave the hospital and live at home. With the aid of a tinkerer friend, he achieves mobility far beyond that imagined possible for someone with his level of disability, and also becomes an advocate for the disabled.
Screenwriter William Nicholson is known for his work on big, glossy, high concept pictures. When such films succeed (Gladiator, Les Misérables), they tend to make a lot of money and win prestigious awards. When they fail, however, they have a long way to fall. Few things are more tedious than failed Oscar bait—glossy films constructed, seemingly by rote, include the elements typical of mainstream prestige pictures, but which fail to make a compelling case for why they need to exist at all. That’s a pretty good description of Breathe, which is also uncomfortably similar to The Theory of Everything (Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish even looks a whole lot like Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking), just not as good.
Breathe has a worthy story to tell, and there’s probably a lot of interesting things to learn about Robin Cavendish and the people who worked with him, but you won’t learn much about any of that from this film. For one thing, I would have liked to see more about how the different devices that enabled Robin’s mobility were designed and tested, rather than having them appear like magic (a screen card says Robin took part in their design, but we see none of this in the film itself). On the plus side, Breathe does broach a few topics usually avoided by American films, such as whether a person has the right to decide to end their own life, but such genuine moments are buried in the mass of treacle that constitutes most of the film.
In Breathe, the sunny dispositions and optimistic outlooks of the central characters are mirrored by perpetually bright and sunny weather in both England and “Kenya” (actually South Africa) (one wonders how the resplendently green countryside that figures in so many shots got enough water to survive). But in Germany, where Robin encounters some less than heartening attitudes toward the severely disabled, the coldness of the medical professionals is mirrored by the wintry weather outside, which also (double bonus!) echoes the gleaming white ward in which polio patients are housed. Such heavy-handed weather symbolism is emblematic of the first-choice, go-with-the-obvious filmmaking that makes Breathe a chore to sit through. | Sarah Boslaugh