You’d think that the directorial debut of motion-capture acting pioneer Andy Serkis would be some sort of technical marvel, especially given that it’s produced by his own studio. Instead, Serkis directed ‘Breathe’, a sweetly forgettable film that takes a frightfully British approach to disability.
You can cry a bit, but mostly invest in a stiff upper lip and enjoy the inspiration without enjoying it too much. The movie is pretty and touching and hits all the right beats of its feel-good formula. It just doesn’t feel particularly human, more of a manufactured take on humane storytelling.
Andrew Garfield stars as Robin Cavendish, an aggressively British and endearing chap who likes to play cricket and have picnics. He quickly wins the heart of a posh gal named Diana (Claire Foy) and together they fly off to Nairobi where he works at the embassy. Then almost as soon as they arrive and their dream life begins, Robin collapses. It’s polio and Robin is paralyzed from the neck down, requiring a machine to breathe for him. That’s disastrous in 1950s England, guaranteeing a bedbound life in a hospital that Robin doesn’t particularly want to live. Fortunately, his love Diana is unprepared to let him go so easily. She has him moved to their home where he can see friends and watch his son grow. From there, a plucky inventor buddy (Hugh Bonneville) starts coming up with ways to improve Robin’s life, eventually creating a wheelchair that carries a breathing apparatus which allows Robin to move, live, love, and even travel.
As you may have gathered, ‘Breathe’ is an inspirational story. It’s a tale of stuffy British folk who don’t like feeling or even discussing difficult emotions finding ways to power through because “Cheerio, things aren’t so bad, are they?” That sounds obnoxious and yet over the course of the film, Serkis and company continually find ways to pull happy rabbits out of sad hats. This is a tale of triumphing over adversity that feels downright whimsical, despite being true. There’s a touch of the fairy tale to the tone, enough so that Tom Hollander getting CGIed into twins never feels strange. It fits with all the particularly English smiles and magic going on around the characters.
The tone might be extreme, but somewhat fits with the story. As a film, ‘Breathe’ is almost painfully manipulative and telegraphed to hit all the right beats of a triumph-over-adversity bio-pic. It’s syrupy and aggressively shoves feelings down viewers’ throats whether they want them or not. However, Robin Cavendish’s story has value given that he wasn’t just the first man wealthy and connected enough to find ways to live and move with polio. He was also an early disability advocate who lived by example. That’s a story worth telling, even in such insistently peppy and emotionally prodding ways. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Andrew Garfield at the center, an actor who is easily charming and talented enough to carry a film with only his face. Serkis also stacks the cast with his fellow British character actors, ensuing that everyone involved can steal a scene no matter how much melodrama weighs them down.
‘Breathe’ is ultimately a very sweet and charming little movie, despite its flaws and tedious tear-jerking tricks. Serkis proves to be a capable director, crafting lushly pretty images that suit his fairy tale tones and working well with his cast. ‘Breathe’ isn’t the most ambitious of directorial debuts, but it’s well-crafted enough to work better than it should.
On the other hand, the movie also feels like a parlor trick. It hits all the right beats while somehow feeling a little off. Perhaps it’s the fact that the fairy tale tone somewhat robs the real story of its true power. There’s something condescending about treating the disabled as magical figures of inspiration. ‘Breathe’ means well and does its job well enough, but it’s the sort of movie that also leaves audiences wanting more.