Andy Serkis is a wonderful actor best known for being in front of the camera, albeit in a mostly unrecognisable fashion. The man who breathed life into iconic characters such as Gollum, Caesar and King Kong sits in the director’s chair for the first time for his feature debut, Breathe. Based on the remarkable true story about the life of Robin Cavendish, the film is an emotional tale of loss, despair and the overwhelming triumph of the human spirit.
Robin (Andrew Garfield) is handsome and adventurous, a man in love with life with even more of it to look forward to. At the age of 28, he is diagnosed with polio which leaves him paralysed and told he only has months to live. Defeated and distraught, Robin would take his own life if he only could. But his loving wife Diana (Claire Foy) refuses to give up on him and, in turn, fills him with hope and defiance as they prove there’s still a life left to be lived for both of them.
Despite the cruel and tragic premise, Breathe is far from a dreary affair. Screnwriter William Nicholson fills the script which warm humour that Serkis ensures is tastefully translated onto the screen. This isn’t a film afraid of its subject matter; at times it’s a harrowing tale that tests the boundaries of the human will, both from Robin’s personal view and the strain it puts in his relationship with Diana. The laughs are frequent in the second act, inviting us to join in with their enjoyment, allowing us to gaze upon this exceptional marriage and how they strive to bring joy into their family.
Garfield is brilliant in the role of Robin, virtually immobile for the duration of the movie, he spends some of the film communicating only with facial expressions. His emotions are conveyed through looks, and when he does speak it’s with a likeable charm. Foy excels as Diana. She is the lynchpin of Robin’s existence, giving him reason to live, even when it comes to great sacrifice to herself. All she does is out of love and Foy displays this in every scene with both actors sharing a natural chemistry.
Tom Hollander pulls double duty, playing Bloggs and David Blacker, Diana’s twin brothers. The twin magic effect works well at times, but on some occasions it becomes a little distracting. The same must be said for how little Robin and Diana appear to age over the decades, until the third act when a little makeup is applied. It’s unfortunately unconvincing, and comes at a point where the film begins to drag slightly.
The ending is emotive, but it’s the overall story that will hit you the most. How Robin survived his initial diagnosis through the love of his wife, while celebrating the work of Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), whose revolutionary respirator chair transformed the lives of those afflicted. Serkis exhibits some powerful imagery, most notably the sight of the responauts as they’re locked up in prison like hospitals, hidden from society.
Breathe is a fine debut for Serkis, the first time director takes on an upsetting and important story and does a good job in telling it to a wider audience. The execution isn’t perfect but he captures the essence of his subjects perfectly.