Andrew Garfield has a marvellous gift: when he smiles he does so with his entire face, including his eyes. This may sound like a weird thing to start a review with but when you’re talking about a film where he has to lay completely motionless save for his face it kind of becomes a big deal.
Breathe tells the story of Robin Cavendish, one of the most famous disabled people in the history of Britain. Paralyzed by polio at the age of 28 and given 3 months to live he persevered and lived for 36 more years and helped pioneer new tools and technology to free other similar paralyzed people as well. He and his wife Diana (Claire Foy) lived a life that screen writers dream about adapting into a biopic: the man with a disadvantage overcomes the odds to outlive all expectations while his loving wife toils by his side to keep the family together.
I say it this way because you have definitely seen this movie, or some version of it, before. It begins when they are young and happy and montages its way through their romance, marriage, and first trips abroad where he contracts polio and becomes paralyzed. Then a brief period of despair before his wife tells him to get back to living, and then he does.
It then skips through their lives as he moves home, helps develop a wheelchair with a respirator built-in, takes trips abroad, and generally does things that paralyzed people don’t do until he gives a speech and a crowd applauds him. Luckily it doesn’t end with that, we do get to see the end of Cavendish life, but despite the man doing amazing things there’s not really anything surprising here. Every time he suggests they do something they go and do it, and usually they get it done because Diana has dedicated her life to making sure he is alive to see their son grow up.
So while the plot is a fairly by the numbers tear jerker (there was on person just behind me absolutely sobbing), it’s elevated by the performances of Garfield and Foy. With only his face to work with Garfield does some pretty great work here. It helps that he’s a very expressive actor in the first place, but he really sells the highs and the lows of Cavendish’s condition and the positive influence he had on everyone around him. Foy, similarly, does a great job as the stalwart British wife, all at once supportive and stubborn, stiff upper lipped and loving. I expect them both to be up for big awards this coming season.
There are a few good supporting turns, too. Hugh Bonneville shows up as a charismatic inventor friend of the family, and Tom Hollander plays Diana’s twin brothers. I don’t know what they’re doing differently but the double Hollander effect is absolutely seamless. Hollander is always a welcome addition to any film so you think having two of him would be even better but the problem is that there are so many supporting characters that precious few of them are developed at all. There’s one character who is there helping for most of the film whose name I honestly couldn’t tell you.
This seems to me that this all comes down to the fact that Any Serkis, yes that Andy Serkis, is a first time director. Sure he helped out on The Hobbit movies but this is his first time in the big chair making all the important decisions. Most of those decisions are safe ones, but that also means that they’re either not that interesting or they’re kind of out-of-place. The tone is a bit muddled, the film hops and skips through time with few real indicators about how much time is passing.
So there it is. Breathe isn’t a great film but it does have a couple of great performances in it. If you’re the type who would enjoy a biopic of courageous people then seek this one out. If you aren’t, well, your mileage may vary.