Andy Serkis is probably best known for his motion capture work and his championing of motion capture performances as Oscar-worthy, so it’s only fitting that his first film in the director’s chair involves a man unwilling to let the rest of the world treat him differently. Breathe is Serkis attempting an “Oscar bait” film — with all the trappings one expects — but with occasional moments of inspired filmmaking that give a sense that someday Serkis could be a director whose works we look forward to. Unfortunately, this is not that film.
Breathe follows Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, respectively), a young, adventurous couple that has their relationship put to the test when Robin contracts the Polio virus. Trapped in a hospital bed, Robin’s life seems near its end, but this isn’t the kind of film that grovels in its depressing notions. Instead, with the help of his wife, Robin moves out of the hospital and lives at home. He pushes against expectations and refutes any conclusions about what he can and cannot do — much to no one’s surprise, other than mine.
One of the major problems with Breathe is that there’s no sense of character before Robin suffers from Polio. Not just for Robin, but also Diana. Their relationship appears out of thin air in the first five minutes of the film, as Robin breaks a tea plate while playing cricket. This is immediately after Diana is regarded as a “heartbreaker” and he’s told “good luck” in regards to romancing her. So, imagine my surprise when suddenly we’ve fast-forwarded to them being married and about to have a baby before Robin contracts the Polio virus. There’s no explanation given as to why Diana sticks with Robin all through his Polio other than the implied notion that you can’t divorce someone who is disabled.
Still, once Serkis gets his characters out of the hospital and starts pushing against perceptions of what it means to be disabled, breaking down imagined barriers, then the story itself becomes the backbone of the film. Robin’s journey to enabling those who are also disabled is worth celebrating, even if much of the risks are played off in typical Hollywood fashion. No obstacle is too high to climb when the film is not concerned with seriously considering roadblocks but instead insists on immediately smashing through them because that’s the happier thing to do. There’s even a scene where the high likelihood that Robin will die brings an entire community together, until a mechanic shows up to fix his respirator (money is no object in this film, despite characters claiming to not really have much).
I can sympathize with not wanting to dwell on more pain than happiness in a movie about overcoming adversity — after all, the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that Robin could die at any moment. An early scene shows how effortlessly he could perish without anyone even knowing, which cheapens the rest of the movie by not having his death feel like a constant risk despite it being so very easily occuring. Serkis seems to want to showcase the mortality of Garfield’s character, but he has no real interest in being morbid about it until the film hits the obvious beats.
Despite few risks narratively, Breathe does exemplify some interesting filmmaking techniques that help to elevate the movie, even if they do little in the long run. While the camerawork is often plain and draws very little attention to itself, there are interesting point-of-view shots from Robin’s perspective that offer a little bit more thematic purpose than other moments in the film. Then there’s the mise-en-scene of specific scenes that capture bleak, hopeless situations, as well as the vibrancy of the hopeful moments. These touches aren’t game changers, but they are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise safe film.
For a debut though, Breathe doesn’t quite solidify Serkis as a director to watch out for, as it doesn’t offer a distinct perspective. It’s a period film that plays it safe, only optioning for realism when it will play with the audience. The few quirks that demonstrate a willingness to be creative are few and far between, with much of the heavy lifting left on the story’s shoulders. Great performances from Garfield, Foy, and the entire supporting cast make it hard not to at least like Breathe, but they’re in service of comfort food for period piece fans that will unfortunately do nothing for those outside of that audience.