Directed by Andy Serkis
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Dean-Charles Chapman, Tom Hollander, Diana Rigg
Written by William Nicholson
I’m going to go out on a limb here. Cinema, today is filled with nostalgia-driven stories that don’t necessarily focus on story or character, but on just being. Hollywood rages against itself with interconnected cinematic universes, which I’m not opposed to. In the same vein, there is a growing trend over the past few years that has seen an increase in nostalgia-driven biopics. More than that, they focus on historical aspects of our global society. Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe is a solid example of a film that fits both bills.
Set in the late 1950’s, the footloose and fancy-free Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) courts Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), taking her on his tea-broking adventures to Kenya. Shortly after their arrival, he succumbs to polio at age 28, paralyzing his body from the neck down.
Mr. Garfield uses his roguish charms to convey the onscreen character’s exuberance for life. When he was diagnosed, they only gave him three months to live. He would go on to be the longest surviving “responaut” when he passed in 1994 at age 64. William Nicholson’s script wisely doesn’t focus on Cavendish’s suffering or the disease itself. It instead focused on his exuberant nature; his zest for helping others. It also focused on his family. Ms. Foy was perfectly cast as Diana. Their love for each other transcended his diminished state, and she supported her husband in all his efforts to extend not only his own quality of life, but their son, Jonathan’s as well.
The support network that Cavendish surrounded himself with does not stop at family, and Serkis takes full advantage of the nimble supporting cast. Tom Hollander plays Diana’s twin brothers, Bloggs and David Blacker, though you cannot tell in the film which twin is which. Hollander plays both roles with grace and humor. Hugh Bonneville plays Teddy Hall, the Oxford professor who helped convey Cavendish’s message to medical experts around the world.
Although his role was limited, Dean-Charles Chapman drives the human element as the next generation of Cavendish. It is important to note that Jonathan Cavendish produced this film, so we get a first-hand account of his experiences with his dad. His involvement in the film diminishes some of the emotional impact of the family life for the sake of dramatization, but it does not turn the film into a paint-by-the-numbers-drama.
Mr. Serkis, whose claim to fame is playing motion-capture characters such as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum or Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, uses his experiences here to frame Robin. Mr. Garfield naturally uses his facial expressions to convey his emotions, and Mr. Serkis uses his motion-capture character experiences to their full advantage, which sounds like it shouldn’t work because it is the exact opposite of his experience. The reason it does work is because a lot of the capture work is on his facial expressions, which requires his body to be still. Robert Richardson’s cinematography extends Serkis’ vision for the film, using a warm and inviting color palette.
It goes without saying that my praise for Breathe is largely in part due to Mr. Garfield, Ms. Foy and Mr. Serkis’ excellent direction. This might seem high praise, but after seeing the film, and knowing his background, I dare say that Mr. Serkis is a modern Frank Oz, and I hope he continues to explore his craft on both sides of the camera.
3 out of 4 stars.