BFI London Film Festival: Breathe

Directed by Andy Serkis
Starring Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander and Tom Hollander
Screening at LFF October 4th, 5th, 2017

by Joanna Orland

It goes against expectation that Andy Serkis has chosen Breathe as his directorial debut. Known primarily for his contribution to the art of performance capture, Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was founded on the idea of technology enhancing the future of storytelling, with Serkis’ rendition of The Jungle Book set to have been his directorial debut. But stories have a way of sneaking up on you, and as soon as Serkis read the script for Breathe, he knew it had to be his first project as director.

Serkis’ Imaginarium co-founder Jonathanish Cavendish is to thank for the story of Breathe, as it is actually based on the life of his parents: Robin and Diana Cavendish became advocates for the severely disabled, following Robin’s crippling bout of polio in 1958. The film is as much a story of their marriage as it is of overcoming tragedy. While Robin perseveres with courage through a life without mobility, fully paralyzed and dependent on life support for breathing duties; his wife, their friends and loved ones are all responsible for seeing Robin through, giving him the boost he needs to help others.

After years of being bedridden, Robin has had enough and works with inventor and Oxford University professor Teddy Hall to develop a wheelchair with a built-in respirator in order to free him from his bed confinement. Robin is eventually able to live a rather full life, considering that years before his prospects were dire. But as prosperous as he is, he doesn’t let this miracle stop at him: He works with a team to bring the technology to other polio victims, and the severely disabled – giving them the same quality of life that he has been fortunate enough to regain.

But of course, living with severe disability is still harrowing for the sufferer and their family. Breathe depicts these difficult moments with tender scenes between Diana and Robin, but also with a sense of humour. Even in dismal situations, the spark between the couple remains, and they treat tragedy in the only way they know how – with jest. This is a very British film in all regards, notably of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sort.

The performances are delicate, rather than hard-hitting. Claire Foy is wonderful as always, restrained in her emotions as dutiful, enduring wife Diana. It’s Andrew Garfield who has the true challenge as Robin – unable to use his body in his performance, his eyes and face must reveal all of the emotion. And they do, even as he captures Robin’s way of speaking in a convincing manner. His transformation from roguish boy to disabled man is considerable. The oddest of performances is from Tom Hollander as a set of twins, Diana’s brothers. It’s not ever relevant to the story that Diana’s brothers are twins, and as it adds practically nothing to the story, it feels like a distracting gimmick. Even so, Tom Hollander does well with the roles.

From a director more used to working with Orcs and Elves, it’s amazing to see such a sentimental side to Andy Serkis. There is something old-fashioned about this film, not only because it’s a period piece set from the late 1950’s to 1980’s, but the majestic cinematography and swelling musical score themselves wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950’s cinema. Somewhat mediocre amongst modern fare, the film is still a heartfelt story of the inspirational Cavendish clan. Affectionately told, tenderly acted, and saccharinely sweet; Breathe is a safe film in a safe pair of hands.


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