Back in 2011, Andy Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish set up The Imaginarium, a production company and performance capture studio that has provided effects for Serkis-starring movies like Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the last three Planet Of The Apes movies. Breathe is the Imaginarium’s first produced film (though their second on release, after horror movie The Ritual) and as you must be able to guess from the premise, it’s a world away from that kind of Hollywood fare.
Based on the true story of Cavendish’s parents, we meet 28-year-old Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) as he meets and courts Diana Blacker (Claire Foy.) They marry and move to Kenya soon after and anticipate a lifetime of adventure ahead of them, that is, until Robin falls ill. Polio leaves him paralysed from the neck down, and his doctors (led by Jonathan Hyde doing his Jonathan Hyde thing) tell him that he has only months to live.
But Diana, determined that their newborn son will grow up knowing and loving his father, won’t give in to either the medical prognosis or Robin’s own self-defeating attitude, and over the following two decades, the couple make drastic improvements to the quality of life for Robin and other severely disabled people like him around the world.
Breathe feels like an actors’ film. We’re going to be seeing more and more of these in the coming awards season, but it’s a film where the actors’ performances, chiefly Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy in this particular case, are what gets the buzz going more than the film itself. And while the story is extraordinary, truth isn’t always stranger than fiction and only the performances really feel remarkable here.
Garfield has had an incredible 12 months, doing more than enough to establish himself post-Amazing Spider-Man, with his Oscar nominated leading role in Hacksaw Ridge, his superior turn in Silence and now his wrenching and expressive work here. As we’ve noted before, a physical performance doesn’t necessarily always mean an active one, and he’s working hard to convey a lot, even while lying still.
His turn is very well matched with Foy, who’s marvellous as Diana, a pillar of strength in the film. At one point, Diana muses about whether they should appear “plucky or pitiful” and the actors, like their characters, plump for the former every time. Crucially, although comparisons to the portrayal of Jane and Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything will abound, they defy expectations with their troubled romance.
While producer Cavendish must naturally be very close to the story itself (at its close, the film is very personally dedicated to Robin and Diana), that’s not to say it makes an extraordinary film. It’s dramatically sedate stuff that probably portrays events and memories faithfully, but drama isn’t always the same as reality.
Paralysis is a massive obstacle for a character, but dramatically, the adaptation becomes quite sedate when everyone is apparently very accommodating. Robin and Diana are financially uncomfortable and they’re surrounded by friends literally everywhere they go, including a never-better Hugh Bonneville as inventive Oxford professor Teddy Hall, who develops the idea of building a respirator into a wheelchair.
Feel-good as it is, the story of going on the road with this innovation isn’t exactly fraught with dramatic tension either, as only a heartless cynic (Mr. Hyde, we’re ready for your close-up) could possibly take umbrage with it. And so, Diana Rigg makes an all too brief as an investor and then it’s off to Germany for a victory lap.
There’s a jawdropping aside in a supposedly progressive hospital that shows how big and how badly needed the Cavendishes’ innovation was, but for the most part, the subsequent tour is suffused with a misplaced sort of smugness that can only come from hindsight. All in all, the film’s two hour running time flies by, but that’s mostly because of an odd lack of resistance in the narrative.
For his part, Serkis’ directorial debut is a handsome affair, gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and there are cinematic flourishes throughout. What few visible special effects there are are concentrated on Tom Hollander’s dual performance as Diana’s twin brothers, and it’s quietly showy stuff in the same vein as the Winklevi in The Social Network.
In one dialogue scene, Diana sits on a swing in the foreground of the shot, spinning this way and that while her brothers converse. Later, cyclists glide from one side of the frame to the other in the background to the twins. But in both cases, it’s still for the actors, and Hollander makes clever work of distinguishing his two characters.
Breathe is plucky to the point of being quaint with it, but we’re eager to point out that just because it’s performance led, that doesn’t mean it’s merely cloying for acclaim during the awards season. It’s mostly engrossing and when it does tug your heartstrings, you may be surprised at how affected you will be. It may be affected by the closeness of the filmmakers to the story, but as a well acted, competently made, loving tribute to people who demonstrably made the world a better place for disabled people, you’d have to try very hard to take against it.
Breathe is in UK cinemas now.