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Andy Serkis’s ‘Breathe’ is Sincere, Crowd-pleasing and a Bit Conventional

Today is the first day of the London Film Festival! I was invited to attend a screening of the Opening Night Gala ahead of its premier tonight. Director Andy Serkis was kind enough to introduce his directorial debut, Breathe. He told us that this was a real passion project for him. Far removed from the kind of projects his production company, The Imaginarium Studios, was established to make (such as his upcoming Jungle Book movie); the script captured his imagination.

Breathe tells the story of Robin Cavendish, a man who became paralysed by polio at a young age whilst working in Africa with his wife, Diana. He was then transported back to England by his wife, where he was interred in a hospital, on a respirator. The film covers his efforts to break free of the hospital’s care and achieve independence with Diana’s support.

Serkis’s directorial debut is an assured effort. He is especially excellent at establishing a sense of time. Framing the early shots of sprawling Africa with objects like gramophones in the foreground helps to create a real sense that this is a place separated by time as well as space. Robert Richardson’s, cinematography is once again gorgeous (his credits include JFK, The Aviator and Hugo), bringing vivid life to scenes as diverse as the African plains to a high-tech German hospital.

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy are wonderful in their lead roles. They are both charismatic and self-assured. There’s a great affection in their interactions. Garfield in particular managed to disappear into his role and expresses a great deal with very little movement. Foy meanwhile is very relatable as the immovable object that anchors Cavendish to the life he finds himself wanting to escape.

Comedy is used to make the potentially upsetting subject palatable to wider audiences, as is conventional in recent films about disability, such as The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything. (It’s strange how most of our stories about disabled people are about the rich or privileged disabled people). For the most part this comedy is genuinely funny, stemming mostly from the eccentric characters.

Johnathan Cavendish, Robin’s son and the film’s producer, wanted to capture the “band of swashbucklers” who occupied his childhood. The Cavendish family in particular are very warmly drawn. Tom Holland plays Bloggs and David Blacker, Diana’s twin brothers. His performance as the pair of brothers who care deeply for Diana and then Robin, is very sweet; he’s able to use the short scenes afforded to him to flesh out these two characters. Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Mangan are able to accomplish the same, bringing great life to small parts. There are only a few crusty old cliché’s thrown in for comic affect. Jonathan Hyde’s belligerent doctor is particularly old hat.

There are also some structural issues which make the film a somewhat less than satisfactory whole. Some key moments seem to have been left out of Cavendish’s story. Most notably, there is his actual initial meeting with his wife (a moment which did appear to be in the trailer), as well as some significant moments from the early stages of his illness. He is unable to talk once he is struck with polio. A doctor tells us that his condition is improving and that he may speak again. We then do not see the scene where he speaks his first words, nor his wife getting to speak with him again for the first time. We simply have a scene of him being unable to speak and then a subsequent scene in which he can. Another crucial moment is when his wife comes to visit him only to be turned away as he has decided not to see her. This is a very painful moment in the film and we yearn for reconciliation. Yet they are merely back together a few scenes later with the resolution left to speculation. The effect is that sometimes moments can feel a little flat, with key achievements and developments being undermined or left out entirely.

Serkis told us that the film had to be filmed quickly. An opening in Andrew Garfield’s schedule meant that the film had to be fully fundraised in seven weeks, pre-produced in seven weeks and then filmed in another seven weeks. This is a tight turnaround for any film. Most film shoots will last at least twelve weeks. It would be a shame if this is the reason for so many narrative holes as the filmmaking is otherwise well handled. Ultimately I have to acknowledge that I would not be yearning to see these sequences were I not fully invested in the story being told.

So far as the disability rights aspect of the film goes, the heart is definitely in the right place. We see people, often well intentioned, treating Cavendish with pity or disregarding him completely. I particularly enjoyed the sequence set within the German hospital in which the disabled people have been removed of all autonomy to protect them and keep them alive. It’s clearly horrific and yet Cavendish is able to see the good, though misguided, intentions behind it.

Breathe may not be the most original story. A brave man overcomes his impairment and lives independently. It’s an established narrative and last year’s Notes on Blindness is undoubtedly more personal and revolutionary. However the power of the lead performances from Garfield and Foy, as well as the extraordinary episodes from Cavendish’s life (particularly the circumstances following his respirator breaking whilst on holiday in Spain), make this a real treat. The occasional narrative hiccup does little to detract from the sincerity and charm of the film.

4 / 5