After such a revolutionary acting career, Andy Serkis should be expected to make an equally inventive directing debut. Breathe is anything but that.
Serkis wrote a new chapter on acting with milestone motion-capture performances in the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes trilogies. Capturing emotion is another story.
Breathe is a rotely inspiring biopic of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an English polio victim and his devoted wife, who pioneered disability rights and wheelchairs with ventilators. They are fine subjects for a documentary or a harsher tale of triumph than this.
Robin and Diana are the parents of producer Jonathan Cavendish, whose friendship with Serkis helped ensure Breathe would be the swooniest polio movie ever. A good start is casting Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy’s darling dimples for all those closeups, draping their poses in cheerio tweed chic.
Breathe begins the love fest with scrapbook efficiency: Robin and Diana meeting cute at a cricket match, cruising the countryside in a sporty roadster, the perfect couple. Then Robin begins losing balance and strength, his polio is diagnosed and a crisis leads to a tracheotomy. Robin will require a ventilator for the rest of his life, which doctors predict won’t be long.
Robin will defy the odds although immobile in bed for much of the movie, unable to speak early on. Garfield does what he can with stillness and timely teardrops. Foy is asked merely to look adoring, occasionally alarmed when power to Robin’s ventilator is knocked out. Suctioning sputum never seemed so romantic.
But true love isn’t what makes the Cavendish story important or interesting in the least. Breathe perks up a bit with the introduction of Hugh Bonneville as inventor Teddy Hall, although not for his performance. It’s because Robin’s idea for a wheelchair ventilator gives Breathe something to do besides trying to jerk tears it never earns. Neither does the movie make it especially rousing.
Robin’s idea begins with Serkis’ lone arresting visual, a treatment center for polio patients that’s essentially a mausoleum of iron lungs, with mirrors allowing patients any view besides the ceiling. We can sense why Robin’s upset and spurred to action, a welcome dash of offbeat in a metronome drama.
Serkis shouldn’t be written off as a director after one movie. He’s already in post-production for a darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book incorporating his motion-capture mastery. Breathe with its biopic mechanics simply isn’t a good creative fit. Fantasy is a digital skin Serkis shouldn’t shed.
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