Breathe (2017) (Review)

Andrew Garfield is on somewhat of a winning streak lately: gravitating from his blockbuster-leading roles to more serious, meatier characters that showcase his talent, the British star scored an Best Actor nomination for Hacksaw Ridge earlier this year, tremendous buzz for Martin Scorsese's prestigious religion picture Silence and an acclaimed stint on the West End with Angels in America. Hoping to add another string to his bow, Garfield takes on the role of Robert Cavendish, a man who become paralysed from the neck down by pole at age 28. Alongside Claire Foy and marking the directorial debut of Andy Serkis', will Breathe find success at the forthcoming Academy Awards?

When Robert Cavendish (Garfield) is given just months to live after contracting polio in Kenya, he surrenders himself to a short life of immobility, ready to die; it is his wife, Diana (Foy), pregnant with their child, who instils him with the will, inspiration and love to continue fighting and truly change the world through their experiences. Garfield and Foy are certainly the leading stars here, with a solid supporting cast padded out with a dual performance from Tom Hollander, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ed Speleers and a brief cameo from Hugh Bonneville.

Breathe is packed to the rafters with emotion, unashamedly tugging at the heart strings and striving to move most to tears. The true-life tale was always going to be an affecting watch, with rousing themes of unconditional love and overcoming adversity - but Breathe has the added poignancy of Robert and Diana's son, Jonathan Cavendish, serving as producer for the project. His involvement in the telling of his parent's story ensures a sensitivity and delicacy is woven throughout the fabric of the film, tender and moving in its approach and execution.

This is all sold through the fantastic, calibrated performances from Garfield and Foy. Well-matched and naturally-charismatic, the relationship is genuine and believable: despite the film's seemingly anxious decision to skip to the narrative's heftier moments, glossing over material that would have provided a more sound foundation for the film, you eventually become swept up in the romance and their commitment to one another.

Garfield is splendid in an understandably physically-restrictive role, capturing the emotion, tenacity and resignation experienced by Robert at varying points through expertly. Garfield is as fine a character actor as they come and this is certainly another terrific performance, somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Redmayne's award-winning turn as Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything. Claire Foy is tremendous too, bringing a well-realised and rendered compassion to the piece; you never doubt their love for one second and Diana's strength becomes Robert's. It's a beautiful, blossoming relationship that serves as an inspiration to us all.

Renown for his motion-capture performances (particularly those that powered the Planet of the Apes reboot to immense riches and acclaim), Serkis steps behind the camera for the first time, helming Breathe with the confidence and stead of an experience, well-versed director. Benefited by some luscious locations and scenery, Nitin Sawhney's gorgeous score and Robert Richardson's impressive cinematography, Serkis nurtures a film of thematic deftness and visual depth, streamlining the 117 minute feature-length efficiently and powerfully. He has obviously looked for inspiration in other successful British prestige-pictures (most notably the aforementioned The Theory of Everything and Amma Asante's A United Kingdom) and incorporate their strengths into his own work. It's very characteristic of that sub-genre and you often will it to find an originality of its own - but its similarities don't take too much away from what is a sturdy piece of film-making.

With so many successful elements in place, it is a shame Breathe's tonal balance is somewhat misguided. While William Nicholson's screenplay courses the Cavendish's journey efficiently, it can be overwhelmingly positive, optimistic and neat at times, without the edge or grit to elevate it further. It becomes monotonous in its mood at times, broken only by a terrific sequence in the final act which takes us to Germany, where we witness the confined, prison-like lifestyles of their disabled people. It's here, with this shift in tone, that the picture illustrates signs of excelling - but it rarely embraces this opportunity and so it remains consistently good, if little more, throughout.

Breathe is an undeniably well-meaning, lovingly-crafted film that impresses through its performances and real-life story, rather than its own execution. Serkis is a confident director, possessing a skill set that should see his directorial career dazzle - but Breathe isn't the most memorable vehicle to make his debut with, suffering somewhat from that tonal imbalance. Garfield and Foy are terrific, once again asserting themselves as two of Britain's most talented exports; while unlikely to win either of them many awards, they both provide sturdy additions to their respective filmographies. Breathe might not take your breath away but you'll struggle not to be moved by its powerful, inspirational story.


Summary: Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy's fantastic performances aside, Breathe is consistently good but rarely great. It won't be the award-season heavyweight many hoped, but it is a stirring and poignant biographical romance-drama - and a promising directorial debut for Andy Serkis.