Breathe isn’t quite the film you’d expect to mark the directorial debut of Imaginarium’s Doctor Parnassus himself, Andy Serkis. That would probably be his sophomore turn at the helm of next year’s motion capture spectacular The Jungle Book. Instead, this technologically quieter biopic is driven not by ambition so much as pure and genuine heart. Though not so remarkable as the story it tells, Breathe makes for a winning watch that leaves you both heartbroken and entirely affirmed.
The film is inspired by the life of, its producer, Jonathan Cavendish’s parents, Robin and Diana, and of the thirty-six years their lives were dominated by Robin’s contraction of Polio in December 1958. Opening with the couple’s sunny, ‘little England’ courtship (over a game of cricket and broken crockery: ‘I know a jolly pub by the river’), the film tracks their lives to Africa, where Robin was embarking on a career in tea broking, and the fateful night in which tragedy struck, cruelly foreshadowed by William Nicholson’s omniscient, yet genial script: ‘I’m going to quit whilst I’m still vaguely standing’. Rushed back to Blighty on a respirator, Robin is quickly bound to a hospital existence, contained by the Vader-esque presence of the air-pumping machinery keeping him alive, and soon falls to depression. Paralysed from the neck down, he is, a doctor tells Diana, ‘like a rag doll’. In a parallel that is true to life yet surprisingly apt as a cinematic device, at the same time, Diana gives birth to Jonathan – totally reliant, as a baby, on the aid of others.
Comparison to The Theory of Everything is inevitable and, to a degree, unfavourable here. Breathe is not a film that packs the punches of the former and never quite offers material enough to allow its stars to shine in the same way as was for Redmayne and Jones. Foy, particularly, suffers from a characterisation just a little too proper and under-explored to feel rounded. Posh with a capital ‘rah’, Garfield fares better, with Tom Hollander leading a thoroughly British cast (you know the sort) of supporting players as Diana’s twin (Chuckle)brothers Bloggs and David. The sight of Hugh Bonnevile welding, meanwhile, is worth the ticket price alone.
As for Serkis, there’s promise here, in spite of a lack of confidence that perhaps comes with a genre that doesn’t entirely feel a natural fit to his style and oeuvre. For a first attempt, Serkis makes a decent job of it but seems yet to feel entirely assured; his shots are frequently fabulous yet fail to entirely satisfy in sequence. Most impressive is his handling of a bleakly sci-fi (think Kubrick) respiratory unit in Germany, more prison than hospital; it’s arresting, tough and a shift in tone from that of otherwise generally fuzzy nostalgia.
In a sense, then, Breathe will disappoint some for its quaint lack of ambition. For most, however, this is pleasant, blue-sky cinema that goes down nicely. To survive their lot in life, the Cavendish family adopted a stoic and positivist approach to the challenges that faced them and it is this refusal to give in that led to the remarkable advances that they, along with family friend Teddy Hall (Bonneville), made in improving not just Robin’s life but those of fellow sufferers across the globe. Beginning with a hospital breakout (they literally dash past the morgue in an inspired image), after one year of unrelenting misery, a drive to ‘not just survive’ leads to the invention of the world’s first respiratory wheelchair and it is not long before the family are romping Durrell-style across Europe.
Everything rounds off to a deeply emotional conclusion that will dampen all but the toughest of eyes, albeit, thankfully, in a way that achieves a feeling of truthfulness enough to belie suggestions of so-called Oscar-baiting. Serkis will certainly go on to make better films; as will his, still young, cast. Yet, asking what can be done with disability instead of what cannot, Breathe makes for an appealing inauguration.