Review: Andy Serkis' 'Breathe' Starring Andrew Garfield & Claire Foy

While it's certainly not the angle Andy Serkis had planned for his directorial debut, the handsomely-shot,  inspirational period drama, Breathe, it's hard not to put it in context with our current political climate. Hard for me, anyway. As we continue to languish with a President who openly mocks the disabled, Serkis' film instead highlights the true story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, a married couple who fundamentally changed the way the world looks at people with disabilities. Theirs is a remarkable tale of commitment, passion, and service, with Serkis proving he's more than capable of doing it the appropriate justice.

Known primarily for his astounding motion capture performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes movies, Serkis chooses to put the focus on others, in this case stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. They make for a luminous duo, especially in the early going as Robin, a former British Army Captain living in 1950s England, courts socialite Diana Blacker. He's young, athletic, adventurous, and ready to make the world his oyster. But it's Diana who steals his heart, and soon they are married and whisking away to far off lands. Their lives seemed destined for never-ending excitement and happiness, until Robin starts feeling weak after a tennis match. After collapsing later that night he is taken to the hospital and diagnosed with polio, paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.

Nowadays a polio diagnosis is pretty much unheard of, but paralysis isn't. Our science has improved to the point that a paralyzed person can go on to lead a full, complete life. But in the 1950s it was basically a death sentence, and Robin is given about 3 months to live. Naturally, he falls into a deep depression, made worse by being trapped in an iron lung at a rundown medical facility that looks like something out of a horror film. Rather than watch her husband wither into a suicidal despair, Diana breaks her husband out, moves him back to England, and sets out to give her husband the fight to survive.

At the time, Diana was pregnant with their only son, Jonathan, who happens to be a producer on the film. So it should come as no shock that a sunny view of Robin's life is in order. That's not to say there aren't periods of intense struggle, like during the multiple times that his breathing tube gets disconnected (including one by Jonathan himself). During these moments we see the full range of Garfield's remarkable performance, in which he goes from shock to panic, all with only the use of his face and neck muscles. There will be obvious comparisons to Eddie Redmayne's Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, but it reminded me more of John Hawkes' underrated turn in The Sessions. Their characters had a similar magnetism and humor that often masked their sadness. They also both found new avenues to focus their energy. Breathe really takes off, literally, when the Cavendish's inventor pal Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) cobbles together a crude wheelchair and respirator that allows Robin to see the world. Through it, Robin sets out to inspire others in his condition to expect more out of life. There's a horrifying scene where he visits the world's top clinic for paralysis treatment, only to find sufferers stacked like cordwood in a cold, sterile room.

As impressive as Garfield is, Foy is on the same level. She must not only serve as Robin's rock, bolstering his strength so he doesn't fall into another depression, but she must learn to adapt to a life she never saw coming.  Her evolution from pampered socialite to mother and advocate is just as uplifting.

Serkis isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here. For the most part this is standard period biopic stuff; sun-kissed images that paint the subjects in an almost saintly way. Hollywood mastered this kind of movie a long time ago, and Serkis is paying homage to it here. That said, he does get to dabble in a little bit of digital hocus pocus with Tom Hollander playing both of Diana's twin brothers. It's a beautiful movie, but perhaps not as inspired visually as we might have expected from Serkis, even at this stage of his directing career.

Of course, there's more to being a director than pretty images, and Serkis has learned enough to let Garfield and Foy do the heaviest lifting. It's through them that Breathe becomes more than another crowd-pleasing melodrama. They allow the film to stand up and walk on its own, and even to run.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5