Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BREATHE is the kind of film that makes audiences feel good about living life to their fullest capabilities. It makes them want to get out there and tackle their own problems with as much grace, gusto and gumption as the romantic biopic’s subjects do. The life-affirming, powerful picture marks the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, whose compassionate, soulful spirit bleeds through the screen emphasized with the goldest of golden hours and the sweetest sounding strings. While it holds two superb performances from its leads and is a beautifully rendered portrait of the human spirit, it’s not without its faults.
Handsome extrovert Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was the absolute life of the party until being struck down by polio at the age of twenty-eight. The crippling disease left him unable to move from the shoulders down, unable to breathe without a machine, and in a compromised state of emotional existence. The doctors dealt him a devastating death sentence, prognosticating he’d only live a few more months. However, with his steadfast, plucky wife Diana (Claire Foy) by his side, along with her devoted twin brothers (played by Tom Hollander, who essentially serves as Serkis’ practically mandatory “how did they do that?!” factor) and inventor pal Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin manages to escape the depressing hospital ward – and find his life’s purpose.
William Nicholson’s screenplay, based on the true story of producer Jonathan Cavendish’s parents, holds inspiration in spades. There’s nothing more heartening than seeing someone demonstrate tenacity, resilience and invention out of necessity – something Robin does with the Cavendish chair, a wheelchair with a breathing apparatus attached. Even without Robert Richardson’s cinematography or Nitin Sawhney’s poignant score guiding audiences how to feel on a visual and auditory layer, the character’s predicaments and reactions are handled with the utmost respect and care. Though it doesn’t wade too far into THE SWEET HEREAFTER territory, they do bring up logistics of how to handle romantic gratification. Pacing is also crucial in a narrative such as this, and it’s clear Serkis understands when to linger and when not to. Plus, he values showing over telling.
BREATHE isn’t without its problems. While it treats everything with a degree of sensitivity and respect that films like ME WITHOUT YOU lacks, it follows the same safe path as all adversity movies before it – a shame given this has such a great message about innovation and invention. There’s virtually no straying from the well-trodden path. Diana comes across as unnatural as she’s too gung-ho about immediately tackling her new normal. Now, I don’t doubt that happened, but in terms of fleshing her out into a three dimensional human, one moment to show this should’ve been allocated to her. Given that situation, it’s difficult to relate to her without a scene or two to allow her to, well, breathe and take in the magnitude. She is human after all. As it is, she’s never shown emotionally conflicted or struggling. She’s terribly flush with positivity, whereas he’s shown as a real person who struggles, but ultimately rises to the challenge.
BREATHE is a soft, warm blanket on a cold night. Its comforting message reinforces that whatever difficulties life hands us, we can ultimately triumph. Lacking in any sort of cynicism, it’s just the kind of biopic your soul could use right about now.
BREATHE opens on October 13.