It’s always a gamble when famous actors try their hands at directing. For every Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard who are able to form respected careers off-screen there are countless others who fail with self-indulgent cinematic messes. With Breathe marking his directorial debut, Andy Serkis hasn’t quite joined the ranks of the greats but demonstrates genuine potential and a keen eye for sweeping spectacle.
Helping matters is that Serkis stays solely behind the camera, letting the magnificent performances of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy form the foundations upon which the rest of the film is built. Based on real events, Garfield plays Robin Cavendish – a man who has his life taken away from him when he is paralysed by polio at the age of 28. Refusing to leave her husband to die, Diana (Foy) pushes and encourages him to leave the confines of the hospital as the two revolutionise public perception on what the disabled can do. Garfield has never been an actor to shy away from challenging performances and he does some of his finest work yet here, expressing Cavendish’s pain, joy, frustration, and loss with his facial tics while keeping his body still from the neck down. As Diana, Foy has to sell the idea of a woman who loves a man so completely that she’s willing to put her own life on hold to look after him, and thanks to the wonderful chemistry between her and Garfield as well as the actress’ innate strength she’s able to pull it off.
Breathe is a film centred around romance, and from the opening title cards seems to be paying homage to the 1950s melodramas of a director like Douglas Sirk. Robert Richardson’s cinematography alternates between the rich, vibrant landscape settings of Spain, Kenya, and Germany with plenty of soaring aerial shots complete with golden sunlight streaming through, and the confining interiors of the hospital or Robin’s bedroom. Serkis is clearly trying to get as much emotion out of his story as possible, but while certain individual scenes carry definite emotional weight they never really connect to one another as a film. The opening in particular rockets along in pace, and by trying to fit almost thirty years of one man’s life into two hours the film ends up feeling more like a highlight’s reel than a lifetime. These highlights were fine as I watched each one, but as Serkis moved onto the next I found myself quickly forgetting what came before so left Breathe with little of the film still on my mind.
While sitting in the cinema for Breathe I found myself wondering why exactly the film was made. Serkis’s direction is much more assured than one would expect from a first-time director, the performances were genuine and generous, and the story is one worth telling – but why now of all times? Cavendish died in the early 90s, polio rates have dropped drastically due to vaccinations, and there doesn’t seem to be any recent events to provoke a renewed interest in Cavendish’s impact on disabled rights. It wasn’t until a title card appeared at the end of the film revealing that Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, grew up to become a film producer that I had my answer. Breathe was made as a son’s tribute to his parents, which is heart-warming in its own right, but ultimately the average viewer is never going to have the same connection to the story as one directly impacted by it.