“Breathe” is a beautifully uplifting film filled with impactful performances, most notably from lead actor Andrew Garfield.
It has a few pacing issues and just a bit too much schmaltz, but for the most part it tells a life-affirming story that’s inspiring due to it being based on a true story of love, courage and life-long devotion.
What’s it about?
“Breathe” tells the story of Robin Cavendish (Garfield), a worldly British tea merchant who in the early 1950’s falls hopelessly in love with his future wife, Diana (Claire Foy, TV’s “The Crown”).
The two enjoy a courtship of storybook proportions. They travel the world in biplanes and enjoy sunsets in Africa, where Robin does much of his business. They marry and soon they’re blessed with the news that they have a child on the way.
Within 24 hours, it all comes crashing down when Robin contracts the polio virus while in Africa. The illness leaves paralyzed from the neck down, unable to even breathe without a respirator. His doctors give him only months to live.
While Robin struggles with despair and begins to wish for his own death, Diana refuses to leave his side. When she asks if there’s anything she can do for him, his request is simple, yet seemingly impossible: get him out of the hospital.
That request is the first step in a new adventure for Robin and Diana, as they, with the help of Oxford professor and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), looks for ways to push the boundaries of Robin’s mobility, to find ways to help live a more “normal” life with his family.
That ongoing quest leads to Robin, Diana, and Hall becoming pioneers in a brand-new field: improving the mobility and quality of life for paralysis patients, bucking the medical establishment of the time and giving new hope to thousands of patients around the world.
Serkis as director
“Breathe” represents the debut directorial effort to motion-capture acting master Andy Serkis, who’s past work includes bringing to life Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies as well as Caesar the ape in the revived “Planet of the Apes” series.
Serkis seems an ideal choice, considering the film is built around a performance that’s heavily reliant on facial expression and the absence of physical movement. As a performer who has been called upon throughout his career to facially emote in such memorable ways in order to be captured and translated into computer animation, his skill set is well suited to bringing out in Andrew Garfield the best possible result, given the role’s unique demands.
Serkis and the production also make the interesting casting decision to bring on a single performer, British actor Tom Hollander, to play Diana’s twin brothers, David and Bloggs. Hollander, an acclaimed veteran performer, proves to be an excellent choice, as he provides just enough nuance for audiences to distinguish between the two men, while Serkis’s shots and visual storytelling do the rest.
Visually, “Breathe” also stands out in terms of its use of light and location photography. This film transports audiences from England to Nairobi, Spain and Germany, and successfully does so thanks to differences in light and photography as much as via art and production design.
One of Andrew Garfield’s best
While the entire cast of “Breathe” turn in exemplary work bringing to life a beautifully crafted script from William Nicholson (“Everest”, “Unbroken”), it’s Andrew Garfield who audiences will most likely come away from the film talking about.
Garfield, the one-time Spider-Man actor who has already blown people away with gut-wrenching performances in “99 Homes”, “Silence”, and “Hacksaw Ridge”, for which he earned an Oscar nomination, delivers arguably his finest work to date as Robin Cavendish. It cannot be overstated how charismatic his work here is, particularly considering the physical limitations of the role.
Garfield’s compelling work and his undeniable chemistry with Claire Foy, whose own turn as Diana should bring tears to the eyes of audiences prone to losing it in tearjerkers, lift this cinematic effort to extraordinary emotional heights. They bring humor, humanity, and authenticity to the roles, rendering the already incredible story even more enjoyable.
“Breathe” does have some issues with pacing. Its inclusion of certain story elements and plot turns, particularly in its second half, robs the film of some of its narrative energy, and might leave audiences feeling like it should have ended on a higher note.
It's also an unabashedly sentimental film. In fairness, that sentiment never comes off as saccharine or forced, but it may prove a bit much for the tastes of audiences who aren't fond of tearjerkers or sentimentality.
That said, it’s still a remarkable story brought to life in a way that honors the lives and achievements of the real-life people involved. Those achievements went on to change the lives of thousands in the decades to come, and so the story and the “never give up” spirit behind it are as important as ever.
For that reason alone, “Breathe” should be supported at the box office. Those who like to be in the know as far as film performances that garner awards consideration should see this one, too, because it will no doubt be in those conversations, as well.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Stephen Mangan, with Diana Rigg and Hugh Bonneville. Directed by Andy Serkis.
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images.