“Garfield and Foy understandably steal the show demonstrating a solid and genuine on-screen chemistry… “
Considering the subject matter at hand, Andy Serkis’ directorial debut is actually something of an up-beat affair.
Set in the late 1950’s and based upon a true story, Breathe, tells the tale of newlyweds Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield and Clare Foy), whose active and adventurous lifestyle is suddenly turned on its head when Robin contracts Polio, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.
Whilst revolving unavoidably around the catastrophic aftermath of such a terrible illness, Breathe is in essence a love story whose multitude of ups and downs are therefore somewhat exaggerated owing to the extreme circumstances in which the couple find themselves as they struggle to adapt.
“I want to truly live,” opines the resolutely optimistic Robin, having overcome an initial bout of depression. Easier said than done considering that his paralysis would effectively have been a life sentence back in the mid-1900’s, not only rendering a patient completely immobile, but confined to the four walls of a hospital ward on life support for the rest of a usually extremely shortened life. If anything, Robin’s hospital environment in England does at least represent some sort of quality of life when compared with the scenes of on-going cutting edge patient care witnessed by the couple on a later visit to a clinic facility in Germany. Rows of patients entombed in clinically stacked iron lungs in a windowless laboratory is a genuinely terrifying site.
Perhaps this immobilised fate would have been too much for Robin to bear had he not been married to Diana, a young lady who proves unequivocally that behind every great man, there really is a truly great woman. Holding their newborn child in her arms, she will not entertain Robin’s initial pleas to be allowed to die, instructing him instead to live.
But it’s clear that being left to whither away in a hospital is no way to exist, and breaking all regulations, not to mention flying in the face of the accepted medical advice and logic of the times, the couple choose to relocate Robin to their new home in the country. Here, he will at least be in a home environment. This incredibly bold move was without parallel in the history of global Polio-related aftercare, but unsurprisingly, fraught with danger.
Serkis’ film adopts a directorial style that swiftly and neatly brushes over the salient points of this tale with little time spent dwelling on what is perhaps perceived to be unnecessary or overly sentimental. One can almost make parallels between this brisk no-nonsense directorial style and the rather stiff-upper-lip attitude and all-round Englishness of the film’s cast.
Almost in contradiction to this, however, Nitin Sawhney’s omnipresent luscious and syrupy score at times positively wallows in the sentimentality of it all, lending the piece a suitably emotional glow.
Decent performances are in evidence across the board. Garfield and Foy understandably steal the show demonstrating a solid and genuine on-screen chemistry, whereas the supporting cast, as good as they may well be, are never more than peripheral to events, and struggle therefore to make any sort of long-lasting impression on the memory.
Breathe is an undeniably poignant film, and though it often treads that precarious line between being emotionally effective and cloyingly mawkish, Serkis’ purposeful direction ensures that it strikes just about the right balance to deliver effectively this sweet and inspiring story of love, patience and devotion between two indefatigable spirits.