Breathe, which marks the directorial debut of famed motion capture actor Andy Serkis, is about the real-life story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), who after being inflicted with polio chose not to live the sedentary lifestyle that the disease relegated him to.
It is one of those heavily emotional films about overcoming those obstacles of life that no one can properly prepare for. In terms of it being a film about a man who loses the ability to move and the woman in his life who rises to the challenge of her husband’s suffering, Breathe feels similar to The Theory of Everything.
But there is less complication in the relationship between Diana Cavendish (Claire Foy) and Robin than there is between Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. We know from the first images of the film that Robin and Diana are destined to be soulmates, and the film never tries to convince us otherwise.
This is the fatal flaw of Breathe. It is less concerned with its central relationship and the emotional strain of the situation, although this strain is shown in moments that are meant to be poignant. The narrative cares more about the potential of death that comes with Robin’s polio than about giving us strong sympathetic characters.
The film is a series of events detailing various overcoming-the-odds scenarios. While these events are important to the story and are what gives Robin Cavendish his legacy, these events are given credence over the central relationship. When the film then pivots to a quiet moment between the two, it asks us to feel deeply moved by their connection, but the film breezed past their relationship so quickly early on that the viewer never gets a chance to step into their emotional space.
The setup of the film does two things. It sets up Robin as having a highly mobile lifestyle—in every scene he is either playing cricket, or hiking through Nairobi, or using a hula hoop. Because we cannot possibly feel sympathy for an immobile character if we don’t first see him at the height of mobility.
The other thing that the first act of the film attempts to do is establish the relationship between Robin and Diana. The progression of the act is too rapid for this to happen organically. Within the first half hour, the pair have already fallen in love, had a child, suffered from his polio, and have gone through a brief falling out.
Even at two hours, the film feels like it is constantly rushing to get through all of the various anecdotes in the script. Rarely are there narrative incidents in which we can breathe and take in the moment.
Performances from Foy and Garfield are admirable, particularly given that the script does not focus enough on their characters’ relationship. They are the reason why we do get a moment here and there to take in the emotional reality of what is happening on screen. Otherwise, the film loses itself in a fairy tale sentimentality that is not off-putting but keeps the film from allowing a truly powerful experience.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)