AT THE gala screening of Andy Serkis’s Breathe, I saw one of its stars, Claire Foy (The Crown) wearing perhaps the oddest dress I have ever seen. She opted to pair her electrically bright, sequinned, full-length, puffy skirted but sheer bodiced number with Jane Eyre hair.
But even though her well-highlighted cheeks beamed in the October air at the London Film Festival opening night, she had nothing on the glow of Lorraine Ashbourne, wife of director Serkis, who grinned at her husband’s side throughout.
Serkis, undoubtedly Britain’s leading living physical actor, was an intriguing choice of director, and was the big draw for me. There hasn’t been a huge amount of money behind Breathe’s marketing (yet) but from what limited information was available, the Mills and Boon styled poster and the tick-a-box “National Treasure” casting (Andrew Garfield, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander) I was fairly sure we were in safe if slightly cheese-scented hands.
Breathe is a story well deserved of telling. Robin Cavendish has his life ahead of him in 1948 when he is paralysed from the neck down by polio. Given just months to live, Robin is now a responaut –alive only thanks to a permanent gigantic mechanical respirator.
With the help of his wife and friends he becomes one of the first polio patients to live out of a hospital with a semblance of a normal life, whilst becoming an advocate for disabled and long term patients’ rights. Are you sitting as comfortably as is ever possible in a cinema seat? So let’s begin.
Our film opens like it’s taking the piss. Did Serkis actually brief post production to make the opening shots look like a pastiche of Wind in the Willows and Last of the Summer Wine? The camera sweeps over heritage-green English fields while the cast list appears over the hills in a curly fount.
The camera zooms in on a country road, with a classic open top sports car, and a dapper, debonair and cheering driver. I remember a scarf and flight googles, but my brain may have shoehorned that in because even without them this opening is actually that typical.
The car is, of course, driven by our hero, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield – looking more well than usual, though not for long). Establishing shots place us on a Glorious English Summer Day™ where there’s tea on a lawn, Springer spaniels and cricket.
There’s effort to make Garfield appear as an Adonis-like leading man, all jaw and teeth and twinkle. He spots a (frankly stunning and much nicer looking than she appeared on the red carpet) Foy – Diana – his future wife. Based, as all great love stories are, on the premise of “Boy, she’s hot! I must make her my wife!” Robin seduces Diana by almost killing her, smashing a cricket ball in her direction shattering a pile of tea cups directly to the left of her head.
Lucky he’s such a great shot, because our gorgeous couple fall deeply and immediately in love. The simpering twats then embark on an exciting, adventuresome life where they land light aircraft in the desert (covering a street seller’s fruit stall in sand) and go on light hikes with friends across the savannah.
Robin is vaguely a tea buyer and the two of them live the Merchant Ivory dream in Africa until one day, after a round of lawn tennis, Robin has difficulty breathing and is diagnosed with polio. He is unable to move, swallow or speak when Diana first sees him in hospital, and the massive machine that breathes for him emits loud, heavy noises as it works its way through each breath for him.
There is a moment that truly captures what a crushing future this would be, the absolute nightmare of spending the rest of your life entombed and unable to communicate, with the constant wheeze and huff of the iron lung keeping you alive as the never-ending soundtrack to every second of the rest of your life. But it turns out it’s not going to be that kind of film, and quickly defaults back to comedy Indian doctors, nasty and nice nurses and stiff upper lips.
After time, Robin regains the ability speak and we make our way into the third act. In real life, Robin Cavendish was a remarkable man who developed aids which allowed paralysed patients to use a telephone and TV or adjust central heating with only head movements – plus a lightweight battery powered ventilator and a modified aircraft seat fitted with electronic aids.
The guy did good – and brought disabled patients a level of independence that otherwise may have been unavailable for years. However, Serkis’s film never really gets into that, and it’s mostly a joyful and only slightly heart-wrenching romp as nice people help other nice people to achieve nice things.
When Robin makes his first visit to a conference on Disabled Living (noting to the assembled experts that there are no disabled people at said disability living conference), the film offers us up one true moment of horror – when we see a sterile and honestly shocking German polio ward. How accurate that image is to history I don’t know, but it’s genuinely affecting and harks back to the brief moments of despair and panic in the first act.
It is a true shame this Breathe fails to deliver on anything other than a well-made Sunday afternoon platform as in addition to few sit-up-and-pay-attention moments there’s plenty of well delivered comedy throughout, and mostly everyone, with a special nod to Andrew Garfield, is putting in huge amounts of effort.
Set and costumes are gorgeous as the film spans the decades – lovely, heavy looking fabrics and chunky kettles and clinking teacups. You’ll shed a tear at the end but basically because we are painting by numbers here.
Of course it’s sad when a man’s wife and child say goodbye (even if the child is played in such a creepy way throughout that I did wonder if we were going to take a third act turn into interesting town – we don’t, it is just an odd soulless performance from Dean-Charles Chapman, who’s also quite weird in Game of Thrones, so, whatever)
But for a directorial debut from Serkis, I’m a little disappointed. Perhaps as Serkis is so seldom in front of a regular camera with a regular cast when performing, that he lacked certainly of how exactly to direct a group of actors standing on a lawn. From someone so renowned for game-changing physicality we get a film about a paralysed man that is so perfectly predicable it becomes sadly forgettable. This is a well assured and competent debut but so lacking in spark that Breathe simply produces a sigh.