Breathe: Film Review


Written by Edward Jones – Student Pages Sub-Editor

‘I don’t want to just survive. I want to truly live.’

Breathe is the directorial debut from Andy Serkis, best known for his ground-breaking motion capture performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Planet of the Apes. He has also directed the second cinematography unit throughout the Hobbit trilogy, and now, as he takes up the directorial mantle, his artistic brilliance culminates in the incredibly touching reimagining of this true story.

Breathe explores the lives of Robin and Diana Cavendish as Robin is taken with polio and his life becomes a grey spectre of itself, his fate tied to a respirator in a hospital bed. But together, they choose to laugh in its face and live unfettered by the disease.

The story itself is one of unrelenting passion, and the film brings it to life with insurmountable care and attention. Every word of dialogue is musically profound, every development executed with artistic brilliance, and the structure nestles the narrative as a mother cradles her newborn child.

The narrative is interwoven with symbolism, which all comes back to the notion of undulation. The idea is first subtly introduced in a comical scene just before Robin falls ill, in which he struggles to understand the source of the females’ pleasure in hula hooping. ‘You just undulate?’ he laughs. ‘That’s it?’ And from this moment on, the narrative sentiment grows from this idea, like roots from a seed. The most obvious manifestation of undulation is Robin’s Breathing, represented visually by the rise and fall of his ventilator. The entire structure of the movie, though told in a conventional 3-acts, follows this undulating pattern. There are oscillating moments of silence and music, scored beautifully by melancholic and playful piano, with the occasional strings added for emphasis; of motion and stagnancy, both literal and metaphorical; and tonally, too.

Yet, breath itself in the movie is a symbol for life, which is filled with bipolarity: hope and despair, happiness and sadness, light and dark, progress and motionless. Breathe articulately illustrates that we cannot change the tide of our fate, we can only choose to ride the waves. As Robin says, ‘I don’t want to just survive. I want to truly live.’ The title itself is an imperative. It implores the audience, as does the film itself, to just breathe. To live.

The movie treads the perfect path between tenderness and comically-realised apathy, both equally cathartic. And Breathe has a great sense of humour: one that feels integral to its tone, rather than tacked on. With Robin being a power failure or mechanical error away from death, the humour is often crude; the movie has periods of despair, but also periods in which it laughs in the face of death. On multiple occasions, the film turns a moment of complete tragedy into one of careless mirth, with the most liberating results.

The performances, too, were tender, raw, and gripping. The leads Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy were equally phenomenal. It’s easy to entertain the idea that Andrew Garfield’s bed-ridden limitations might have posed a challenge for him, but the case is completely contrary. With only his facial muscles and voice to act with, his performance is honest and vulnerable, and draws us right into the mind of his character. It is inconceivable to imagine the space between character and actor when watching his performance. Likewise, with Claire Foy’s Diana, whose comparable struggles could be easily overlooked by her ability to move freely. But don’t be fooled; her character is just as imprisoned as Robin is by his paralysis, and Claire Foy demonstrates this without a hitch. The supporting cast maintain the high standard, too, punctuating the emotional, comedic, and narrative aspects of the story.

Although Breathe spans the decades of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, with all the characteristic marvel of a period piece, it is a timeless story, one made all the more touching by its true nature. It is told with a masterful tenderness and industry-leading artistry in all areas of its production. A spectacular debut for Andy Serkis.

Release date: October 27th