A true story of enduring love and survival against impossible odds, Breathe is chiefly noteworthy as the feature-directing debut of British screen star Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes), a kind of dry run for his Jungle Book reboot next year. But the main authorial force behind this personal passion project is producer Jonathan Cavendish, who co-founded the London-based motion-capture studio Imaginarium Productions with Serkis in 2011.
Cavendish conceived Breathe as a tribute to his parents, Robin and Diana, and the “swashbuckling band of eccentrics” that surrounded them during their long and extraordinary marriage. Despite being paralyzed from the neck down at 28, Robin defied medical science by living a full, productive, positive life as a devoted family man and trailblazing disability rights campaigner.
Breathe is clearly aiming for the same heart-wrenching emotional heights as James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. But this is very much a crude copy, its noble intentions hobbled by a trite script, flat characters and a relentlessly saccharine tone that eventually starts to grate. Set in a jolly old England of warm beer, country houses and village greens, it feels more like Downton Abbey with a medical subplot than a serious biopic about an astoundingly able disabled man and his devoted wife.
Whatever its flaws, Breathe will likely do modest business on the strength of its starry cast, which includes Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man), Claire Foy (The Crown) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey). It also boasts lush visuals courtesy of triple Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator) and a screenplay by William Nicholson, a two-time Oscar nominee whose credits include Gladiator and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Following its gala world premiere in Toronto, Breathe opens the London Film Festival on October 4th. It then screens in Zurich, San Diego and the Hamptons before landing in U.S. theaters October 13th. Bleecker Street and Participant Media share North American rights.
Debonair young couple Robin Cavendish (Garfield) and Diana Blacker (Foy) begin their courtship in the mid 1950s in that quintessentially English setting, a cricket match. Soon they are married and on extended honeymoon in Kenya, where Robin works as a broker for a tea plantation. But shortly after Diana falls pregnant, her dashing new husband is struck down with a severe case of polio. Mute, paralyzed and wholly dependent on a mechanical ventilator, his life expectancy is diagnosed in mere months.
But Diana has other ideas. Vowing to stand by Robin through thick and thin, she flies him back to London, pulls him out of his initial suicidal slump, and helps nurse him back towards limited powers of speech and movement. Against medical advice, she also fights against stuffy hospital bosses to spring Robin from his prison-like ward and relocate him to their genteel country home. There they enlist old friend Teddy Hall (Bonneville), an Oxford professor and amateur inventor, to help create the cutting-edge technology that will allow Robin to live a more normal life, starting with a battery-powered mobile respirator mounted on a home-made wheelchair.
Liberated from his sick bed, Robin boldly begins to venture beyond the family home, including a hair-raising road trip to Spain that almost ends in tragedy when his respirator battery explodes. He and Diana also become charity campaigners for the rights of severely disabled people, raising funds and pressing government ministers to provide wheelchairs for other polio victims. Their lobbying is a huge success, and Hall’s company manufacture the chairs. A happy ending and a cream tea for everybody. Hoorah!
Well, no, of course not. Robin and Diana were obviously remarkable souls, but Breathe paints them as borderline saints, flattening their humanity and carefully glossing over potentially tricky subjects, notably sexual matters. Foy’s performance, perky with a hint of steel, mostly rises above these limitations. But Garfield is inevitably hampered by a role that restricts him to little more than nodding and grinning. And boy does he grin. Tom Hollander also does double duty as Diana’s twin brothers, his dual role seemingly an excuse for some creaky comic banter and slick visual effects.
There is a fascinating true story about two exceptional people buried beneath all this sugary gloop. But in the hands of Serkis and Nicholson, it becomes a reductive parade of jolly japes and stiff upper lips, all drenched in the sonic syrup of Nitin Sawhney’s atypically mawkish score. Even when the grim reaper strikes in the final act, he arrives softened and sanitized and bathed in an incongruously warm glow. As we might expect when a film producer writes a big-screen love letter to his exceptional parents, Breathe is a touchingly sweet portrait. But Cavendish is too close to his subjects, and the end result feels like a soppy vanity project.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
Production company: Imaginarium Productions
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan
Director: Andy Serkis
Screenwriter: William Nicholson
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Producer: Jonathan Cavendish
Production designer: James Merifield
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Sales company: Embankment Films