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STX International (2017)


Director: Andy Serkis


Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ed Speleers

There are no apes, swamp hobbits or intergalactic Supreme Leaders here.


The directorial (released) debut of Andy Serkis, Breathe tells the story of polio sufferer Robin Cavendish (Garfield) and his inseparable wife Diana (Foy). Whilst working in Kenya in the 1950s, 28-year-old Cavendish is struck down by the debilitating disease and given mere weeks to live. Diana refuses to accept this or Robin’s initial depression, and upon returning to England sets about changing the way disabled people are viewed across the world.

Leaving hospital against all medical advice, a respirator is set up at their home and Robin is allowed to enjoy a better life via the use of a new invention created by his good friend Teddy Hall (Bonneville) – a wheelchair with an inclusive respirator. With the unshakeable support from Diana, the couple’s son, Jonathan, and their stable of close friends, Robin defied the odds for over forty years whilst altering the way disabled people are regarded across the world, in terms of hospital support and advancements in kit and technology.


Swathed in golden visuals, a tinkling score, antiquated typeface and plenty of stiff upper lips, Breathe wears its vintage heart proudly on its sleeve. Bolstered by Nitin Sawhney’s soft score (accentuated by Cole Porter cuts) any potential urgency or gloominess is replaced by a cheery, slow-paced jaunt through the adult life of Cavendish. Surprisingly/crucially (*delete as applicable), the movie didn’t fall into misery once polio had set in, eschewing the need to drill home the incapacitating nature of the illness for emotional home-runs and instead focusing on the joy that Robin was able to experience and his influence on others. In doing that, the inevitable darker moments, the conflict and the strain felt by Robin and Diana is never truly shown – there are fleeting moments, but Serkis chooses to take a half-full approach throughout.


Having studied under the talents of Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, Serkis certainly shows he has a keen eye for directing – Breathe is a well-made, well-shot movie that breezily captures the feeling of the varying locations in the movie. The village green preservation society is out in full-flight during the movie’s opening scene (there are crisp cricket whites, tea and scones and a delightful British summer sun shining down), the amber skyline of Kenya blazes beautifully and the German medical facility later in the film has clinically horrific feeling emanating from it. From large, establishing shots to more intimate moments, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the cinematography or the lush visuals Serkis and DoP Robert Richardson delivered.


Breathe acts as a solid vehicle for the talents of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy who are both extremely good in their respective roles of Robin and Diana. Garfield is left to emphasise every movement using simply his face – due to paralysis from the neck down – and Foy has a keep-calm-and-carry-on demeanour that fit well together and carries the movie along. There’s some fun trickery present with Tom Hollander playing both of the Blacker brothers and Bonneville seems to be having some fun portraying Professor Teddy Hall. A good ensemble cast deliver good performances all around.


Narratively, the movie suffers from some strange pacing. The courtship of Robin and Diana is complete within the first five minutes of the movie – and I can understand the rationale behind that, though it is still very quick – and despite a few on-screen cues, time is seemingly measured via the growth of their son, Jonathan, and subtle ageing to Garfield. At times, it isn’t particularly clear what time period the movie is playing in or how long Cavendish has been suffering and key moments come and go quickly in order to fit as much story in as possible. As mentioned, the weight of the situation is held off in favour of a more upbeat affair, and at times the movie would’ve been served better by lingering on those heavier moments for just a bit longer. There are a few endings to the movie and whilst the conclusion may feel manipulative to some, it’ll still tug at your heartstrings.


It may not reach the heights of The Theory of Everything, but Breathe is still a very decent movie that deals with a nasty disease with levity and tells an uplifting and ‘sweet’ (in terms of visuals and score) story. Serkis’ debut release is a solid affair and hopefully will set him up for further efforts in the future – because the man is great. Falling short of being great, Breathe delivers a sweeping, uplifting movie about a story that was great to find out more about.

December 21st 2017

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