Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Directed by Andy Serkis
Written by William Nicholson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander & Hugh Bonnerville
BFI London Film Festival Review by Dean Pettipher
Every time they enter the movie theatre, audiences willingly accept and embrace tremendous mismatches between what is claimed and what is. The barriers of tolerance vary greatly from person to person. However, ultimately, they all have these internal fortifications firmly set between what they are happy to accept and what they simply cannot even pretend to agree with. While such escapism can be exhausting, the sheer scale of pain and suffering that plagues the world, as if it was constantly in flames, serves as a reasonable justification for determinedly navigating through the dull realities and harsh trials of life towards focusing on what makes life worth living, in spite of its various hardships. Thus, Breathe (2017), the directorial debut from the finest motion capture actor of all-time, Andy Serkis, was a warmly welcomed opening movie for the BFI London Film Festival 2017. The film feels like a frustratingly safe mixture of The Theory of Everything (2014) and A United Kingdom (2016), with an exploration of romantic love and disability similar to the former feature and a sentimental tone akin to the latter movie. Nonetheless, the lack of experimentation is superbly compensated for by an overwhelmingly poignant story, performed and captured on camera with remarkable elegance. A clear and sincere emphasis on particular emotions, mainly romantic love, propels the otherwise doomed tale into the realms of the ineffable, especially for audiences who truly adore movies based on true stories. Indeed, in the modern world, where dating seems all but totally void of any genuine feelings when it really matters, the optimistic possibilities that Breathe hopes to share with audiences around the globe at times hardly seems possible. So, while audiences may not leave the cinema with a totally new outlook on filmmaking or storytelling, they will almost certainly leave with a powerful and unquestionably essential reminder of hope.
At the heart of Breathe are the sensational performances; Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield in particular glow triumphantly bright as truly believable, passionate and compelling leads in their respective roles. Garfield strikes again, by highlighting through a depiction of a disabled protagonist that is as convincing as the performances by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything or Charlie Coz in Marvel’s Daredevil (2015-Present) that he is comfortably at the top of his game. His authentic portrayal of yet another real-life character, noting his wonderful work from Hacksaw Ridge (2016), reminds audiences that he really did recover, at least regarding his career, after his abrupt conclusion with The Amazing Spider-Man series (2012-2014). Foy also shines, courtesy of her enviable eloquence and sophistication, which audiences have already relished from Wolf Hall (2015) and The Crown (2016-Present). Her expert grasp and translation of profound emotions through the art of the motion picture are ceaselessly astounding. Every moment that Garfield and Foy are together is fuelled by enough indescribable chemistry to make the coldest hearts aquiver, especially in the wake of the incredible limerence that Foy conveys towards Garfield in his company, even in the darkest hours. The result is a portrayal of a love and also a life-partner that all may dream of and feel, at least once, that they may never find. Accompanying the two aforementioned stars is a perfectly-selected group of supporting players, including Hugh Bonneville, who brings an undeniably charismatic presence to the silver screen, even if a familiar one for fans of his integral part in Downton Abbey (2010-2015). The performances are propelled further by gorgeous cinematography that maintains its alluring beauty even with the most mournful settings, as it so beautifully captures the aesthetic similarities and contrasts between locations ranging from Kenya to Germany and England.
The music and the writing of Breathe both hit the right beats when pinpoiting the emotioanl complexities of the drama. Having given life to the epic that was Gladiator (2000) over a decade ago, William Nicholson provides the same care and thoughtfulness to his latest script, employing some dialogue that can only be delivered with the most tenacious of efforts if it is to be fully appreciated. Nitin Sawhney adds yet another crucial injection of poignancy to the picture with his majestic and mellifluous orchestral score. While what is heard in the form of both the spoken word and the musical instruments feels at best like a different flavour of what audiences have experienced at least a few times before, Breathe would not be able to maintain its tender and fragile emotional hold of them without it.
After all is seen and loved, the spark of Breathe will fade because much of what is seen and heard is at least fairly derivative. At worst, nothing may feel truly new, save for the unique circumstances that make up the story. Thus, particularly around the middle of the movie, the emotional impact is weakened by what seems like an uncomfortably slow pace because much feels so familiar, especially in the eyes of avid movie or romance lovers. While Serkis clearly knows how to tell a story through the art of cinema, he has yet to establish what makes his directorial style distinct. Still, his first outing as the leader of the team is promising. Furthermore, Serkis has every chance of reaching the heights of the legends, such as Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Tom Hooper. Another concern raised from the movie is how far the boundary is crossed with the sugar-coating of some key events and the lack of exploration of others. For example, the development of the relationship, supposedly grown entirely through serendipity, between Garfield and Foy from strangers to lovers, gets so little attention that one can struggle to invest too much emotion into their relationship at first, since one may not be able to believe how what cannot have been that easy to develop was glossed over and even ostensibly ignored. Fortunately, the depiction of the trials faced by the couple as they cope with a life-changing disability are given a much greater depth of exploration that sheds light on the suffering as well as the joy that their characters must have shared in reality. Therefore, by the conclusion of the tale, enough light has been shed on the struggles and the rewards that followed to instil at least a hint of inspiration within the audience.
In the end, Breathe remains a story that needed to be told and a film that should be seen. Just about everyone knows all too well that life is difficult and that love is messy. So it seems understandable to want to focus mainly on the joy, even if only for a couple of hours. The movie makes a wonderfully convincing case for two notions. The first is that one can live life to the full in spite of a disability, in a manner that sees disability in an admirably positive way. The second is that true, unflinching love has the power to change and even save lives. Audiences would definitely appreciate more movies like Breathe, which honestly and sensitively explore disability. Moreover, they would revel in the prospect of films that are so sincere in their artistic intentions that even the promotional material, designed solely to sell films to potential audiences no matter how good or bad they really are, appears to be genuine. For, as the poster suggests, it certainly seems true that, “with her love, he lived.”