It may come as some surprise to learn that Breathe, a grounded, biographical drama about a man overcoming obstacles, marks the directorial debut of motion-capture pioneer and Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis, but it is abundantly clear watching this film that Serkis’ heart is in it. The film tells the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a young man who in 1958 contracted polio and became paralyzed from the neck down, requiring a respirator to breathe. While he at first had a rather sour outlook on his new condition, through love, ambition, and sheer force of will, Cavendish broke down disability barriers to live his life to its absolute fullest. The film is an incredibly sweet affair, and although it’s almost drowning in pleasantries to the point that it lacks much drama, Serkis does an admirable job behind the camera and Garfield and co-star Claire Foy deliver swell performances.
When Cavendish comes down with polio, he is forced to go on a respirator to keep him breathing, and thus confined to a hospital for the foreseeable future. With little hope and plenty of struggle ahead—along with a newborn son—Cavendish just wants to die. But his wife, the headstrong and supportive Diana (Foy), refuses. She persists, and in what feels like not a very long period of time, they come to the decision to move Cavendish back to his home, with Diana taking over the duties of ensuring that the respirator—which is necessary for him to breathe—keeps Robin alive.
Their plan is enacted and Robin is surrounded by family and friends for the rest of the film, as it covers the other struggles he encounters as well as his push to be an advocate for disabled persons continuing to be functioning members of society and instead of outcasts in need of being hidden. Serkis captures all of this quite well, working with cinematographer Robert Richardson to craft a warm and inviting image throughout, which serves to underline the love that persists throughout Robin’s family. There are a couple of odd choices here and there—the score is a bit anachronistically carnival-esque in spots—but for the most part Serkis proves he can more than handle running an entire production. And Garfield, who’s proved with turns like The Social Network and Silence that he has a tremendous talent, is unsurprisingly great when confined to only his face for most of his performance.
Indeed, while Breathe marks his directorial debut, Serkis actually shot Warner Bros.’ The Jungle Book as his first movie as a director, but that film is not yet finished and he’s only completed the performance-capture phase. So to see Serkis take on something so tangible is a delight, and clearly he has an intense passion for the relationship between Robin and Diana.
But the Robin/Diana dynamic may also be one of the bigger issues of the film. No doubt Robin’s story is one of inspiring courage, but in William Nicholson’s screenplay, moments of conflict or drama are few and far between. Robin and Diana have a nice life together, taking ambitious trips, and even when things go south they always have a cheery attitude. They’re nice people who live a nice life, almost entirely conflict-free. It’s certainly pleasant, and perhaps that’s exactly what happened, but drama arises out of conflict, and the film is so free of tension that it didn’t land for me as hard as I was hoping.
I can’t believe I’m saying a movie is too nice, but one of the scenes where I was most engaged involved young Jonathan asking to be taken to Africa, and Robin and Diana having one quiet, private moment of apology between the two of them—for Robin’s condition, for forever-limiting their lives, for everything. It’s real and raw, and it also further shines a light on the depth of the love between these two people.
This movie feels like Exhibit A for why “true story” adaptations are just that—adaptations. Changes are made to heighten drama and stakes while staying true to the spirit of the film, and while the central duo of Robin and Diana make for a pleasant pair, the severity of Robin’s condition could no doubt have elicited a few more raw moments between the two of them, which would have further illuminated their relationship and struggles. As it stands, while their ever-cheery outlook is admirable, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling of stories.
That being said, Breathe’s crowdpleasing quality cannot be denied. It’s an old fashioned tearjerker at heart, and while I felt the film lacked drama at times, I can admit there’s something alluring about its sweeping pleasantness. And while the film does start to broach some very serious issues in its final third to emotional results, even in the face of darkness, things remain overly jovial.
So while I own my “bah humbugness,” I can recognize that Robin and Diana’s story is certainly one to admire, if not exactly intrigue.
Breathe opens in theaters on October 13th.