Review: Breathe, directorial debut from Andy Serkis—the man who should’ve gotten lifetime achievement for dedication to performance capture, is surprisingly a grounded, imperfect but breathtaking love story inspired by Robin Cavendish, a responaut who survived from paralyzing polio, and his loving wife, Diana.
Andrew Garfield, as per his recent standard, is astonishing as Robin, an energetic British tea-broker who ventures in Africa. His social fluidness helps him winning over Diana Blacker’s (Claire Foy, The Crown) heart, despite her reputation as a professional heartbreaker. Love blooms quickly and, before long, Robin marries Diana before his tenure in Kenya began. Yet, life gives as quickly as it takes. During Diana’s pregnancy with Jonathan Cavendish (who apparently becomes the film’s executive producer), Robin falls sick as he inhales polio virus and was paralyzed from the neck down. With three months to live—according to doctor’s initial diagnosis—and weak will to live, only Diana’s love nurtures him back to life
Breathe is high on parallel with James Marsh’ Theory of Everything. Struggle of a physical handicapped man to defy the odds is highlighted with growing love between grown-ups. Garfield is as terrific as Eddie Redmayne when portraying Stephen Hawking. Limited to only restraint voice and facial expressions, Garfield channels Robin’s emotional journey from a being a soulless body condemned with despair and desperation into becoming an optimistic, happy-go-lucky man who breaks walls of physical confinement.
Yet, same as Theory of Everything, it’s the wife who transcends the story into something more than some overly sappy drama. Claire Foy excels as Diana, a wife who had choices to leave her helpless husband but chooses to stay. In Foy’s eyes, we learn that there’s a battle within her as she keeps taking painful decision one by one; but, it’s Foy’s eyes, too, that tell us there’s hope inside. Breathe reflects upon the idea that ‘love makes two become one.’ Foy and Garfield’s onscreen chemistry is vivid and alive as their characters blend into unison. Garfield’s Robin acts as the brain and Foy’s Diana becomes everything else; therefore, “they’re no longer two, but one flesh” as in the Bible.
Garfield and Foy’s superb performances often become Breathe’s main leverage since William Nicholson’s script, while carrying strong sense of empowerment, often over-indulges in its glorified moments. Breathe often overly focuses on pivotal moments regarding Robin’s paralysis and the development of Cavendish chair; and then, it forgets smaller details, which have already been brought up but forgotten, such as Robin’s source of fortune or discussion about sexual drive (involving Robin’s widower friend). On another note, Serkis’ direction feels effective but not special. As if unleashing Garfield-Foy’s winning chemistry in creating an uplifting atmosphere is not enough, Serkis keeps overdoing it in the sappiest moment, which makes the film a little off balance.
Nevertheless, Serkis still wraps his first quest satisfyingly under support from Jonathan Cavendish, whose influence is thick in the film’s final result. Breathe, a tribute to a man who overcomes limitation, is a well-purposed, breathtaking love story which, although sappy at some points, is uplifting and optimistic. It’s Garfield and Foy’s performance that lifts it all up.