Andrew Garfield might have one of the best crying faces in the business. That’s all the better for Breathe, as it is the small but admirably versatile landscape of Garfield’s face which anchors Andy Serkis’ directorial debut about polio survivor Robin Cavendish.
Breathe is by no means an edgy film—cynics be warned—but it is a capably told tale of pluck and determination. Robin Cavendish (Garfield) is a handsome everyman who falls in love with the beautiful Diana Blacker (The Crown’s Claire Foy). Their courting period is finished before the opening credits are over, and, courtesy of Cavendish’s career as a tea broker, the golden couple embark on exotic excursions to Africa, discovering that a sunset is just as suitable for wistful embrace on a Kenyan hillside as it is in Oxfordshire, as the Oscar-studded cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglorious Basterds, JFK, Platoon) can attest.
Their lives are idyllic to the extreme, and therefore ripe for a lightning bolt. At age 28, newly married and with a baby on the way, Cavendish becomes paralyzed by polio. Unable to breathe on his own, Cavendish is imprisoned in his hospital bed, tethered to the Darth Vader-like inhalations of his ventilator, which becomes almost a character in itself. His prospects collapsed and quality of life deteriorated, Cavendish retreats into himself. However, his will is no match for Diana’s, who insists that the polio is merely a hindrance, not a death blow, despite the surly doctor’s warning that Cavendish has only three months to live.
It is not the ventilator or the paralysis or even imminent death that drives Robin mad, but the bleak tedium of the hospital walls he’s been forced to stare at for a year, having outlasted the doctor’s expectations. In one of the film’s most beautiful moments, a stir-crazy Robin begs Diana to get him out. Against the doctor’s wishes, and with the help of their friend, the inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Diana smuggles her husband out of the hospital. In an inspired departure from pseudo-imprisonment most disabled patients can expect, the Cavendishes envision an alternative. A devoted rotation of family and friends help the couple recreate the hospital conditions inside their home. Awash in honeyed sunsets and cricket matches on the lawn of their postcard-perfect English home, the would-be explorer, father, and husband finds that this future—while not the one he imagined—can (mostly) proceed as planned.
Perhaps it was the test of immobility that tempted Garfield to take the role, as he’s forced to act solely from the chin up. While he eventually regains the use of his voice, he does most of his speaking in the furrow of a brow and flutter of an eyelash. The chaplinesque acrobatics of his face are magnificent to behold; whether he’s tearful or grinning giddily as a schoolboy, Garfield proves that the limited canvas of his face is more than enough to carry a film.
For all of its inspiring-true-story checkmarks and florid musical cues, Breathe has moments of surprising humor. Whenever a scene seems to be barreling towards tragedy, it often veers sharply into more joyous or comedic alleyways. When their car breaks down in the Spanish countryside, the family becomes the unexpected nucleus of a party, fairy lights and all. In fact, for a film about a father with polio, there is an astounding number of party scenes. Even more frequent are lush, syrupy exaltations of the outdoors, romanticized as a breezy, picturesque paradise at every turn. Even the most sedentary of audience members might find themselves eager to find a meadow to frolic in. Breathe is determined to inspire gratitude for small pleasures: riding in a front seat with the windows down (as Robin is able to do, courtesy of another of Teddy’s clever contraptions), pick-up games of cricket, traversing the countryside at sunset.
Much like life, Breathe shows that tragedy and triumph don’t always behave like you expect them to. In the film, moments which seem like they’ll become tragic end up joyous—and the anguish, when it comes knocking, arrives in quiet, unexpected moments, when you’re peeling potatoes before dinner. Mostly, these characters betray a rigid allergy to any “woe is me” sentiment. And while unequivocally saccharine, there is also a very English, even banal, matter-of-factness to the way they determinedly plod forward, the dictum “keep calm and carry on” an unspoken yet unwavering through line. Touches of gallows humor are perfectly placed, like dollops of cream, such as when a doctor asks, “How are we this morning?” and Diana answers, with wry frankness, “We wish we were dead.”
Breathe is more interested in how people cope than how they struggle, but one requires the other, and it suffers the imbalance. A few more instances of clenched-teeth agony and tension in their marriage might have made their triumphs that much sweeter. There is a moment when Foy’s Diana—playing mother-as-superheroine, mother-as-saint—screams, off-screen, in one of her only moments of true, uncorseted frustration. It makes you wonder, when Diana is alone, if she maintains her dutiful, let’s-get-on-with-it composure, or if she ever permits herself a savage, satisfying scream in the dark. Robin gets his moments—and Garfield plays them beautifully—but Diana is so good at performing resiliency that the performance itself becomes a subject of interest. You want a peek offstage at the mechanics which must be in place to tug up the corners of her mouth. Considering that the film’s operating thesis is don’t put things that you make you uncomfortable in a closet, out of sight, its unwillingness to give sustained attention to the uglier, messier, more frustrating moments of their marriage tampers its potency. Breathe wants to explore how people grin and bear their suffering, but it favors the shiny veneer of this act, and not the mechanics that create it: the screaming and pillow-punching, the pillars of frustration that allow those brave smiles to stand. While their courage is inspiring, it isn’t always convincing; it would be more moving to see what those luminous smiles cost.
However, considering that Jonathan Cavendish—played as a teenager in the film by Dean-Charles Chapman, who you might recognize as Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones—was a producer on the film, it’s unsurprising that the film’s perspective skews rose-tinted. It succeeds as an argument for its thesis—don’t treat disabled people like prisoners—and as a lovesong to Jonathan’s parents. As for a directorial debut for Serkis (technically he made his Jungle Book movie first, though it won’t be released until late 2018), Breathe is imperfect—and certainly nothing you haven’t seen before—but its charms outweigh its shortcomings. For anyone who has ever had to sit by while a loved one suffers, Breathe’s uplift theatre might be the temporary antidote you need.