As far as the inspirational-poster-covered walls of freshman dorms across America are concerned, “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” That’s become a parody of itself, a trite sentiment that performance-capture visionary Andy Serkis curiously decided to stretch thin across his aptly titled directorial debut Breathe, a tame, vanilla whimper of a period drama begging for a better treatment in more assured hands.
For what it lacks in narrative spark, Breathe is nonetheless a dutiful biopic, one that pays respectful — if frustratingly restrained — homage to the life and legacy of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), an ambitious Brit with an entrepreneurial spirit. He was stricken with polio at 28 and staring down a grim prognosis. Paralyzed from the neck down and unable to draw breath on his own, doctors told him he’d survive three months, shortly after his marriage to a young woman, Diana (The Crown‘s Claire Foy), yields a newborn son.
The bulk of the film charts Cavendish’s journey from dejected victim to inspired advocate for disabled rights alongside his committed wife. While Breathe is clearly fond of its subjects’ real-life accomplishments (they traveled the globe campaigning for better treatment facilities, and popularized a respirator-clad wheelchair that enhanced patients’ independence), Serkis fails to find an appropriate, complementary visual language to enliven their story and properly engage his audience. There are satisfying glimmers of existential complexity at the start, as Cavendish questions his faith and will to live while bonding with suicidal responauts in hospital, but Serkis instead clings to a mawkish framing of his leads’ domestic lives, glacially wafting in and out of lighthearted familial vignettes that dress the build-up to an otherwise heartening conclusion in uncompelling, photo album antiquity.
Written by Shadowlands and Gladiator scribe William Nicholson, Breathe contains fleeting moments of zest that far outpace Serkis’ modest scope. There’s something steadily reassuring about the way the former’s script evolves Diana, the affectionate, steadfast wife, an instrumental piece of the Cavendish legacy; Foy shepherds the transformation with ease as Diana turns from knowing object to a forceful agent carrying the bulk of Breathe‘s dramatic weight. (It’s all a bittersweet notion, however, considering Foy will be campaigned in the awards race as a supporting actress for a film she very much shoulders on equal ground with Garfield.)
Still, despite his cast’s dedication, Serkis has unfortunately boxed himself within the confines of duty to the memory of the Cavendish couple — apprehensive to take liberties and approach the already subdued material with the same sort of onscreen daring with which he conquered The Lord of the Rings or King Kong. The inklings of panache we do get are reduced to gorgeous shots of the Cavendishes’ early courtship, the swooning aura elevated greatly by the actors as they knowingly lean into the aesthetic as it recalls sweeping epics like Out of Africa or the dreamy glow of a Douglas Sirk melodrama.
But too soon after, Serkis again settles into a by-the-numbers, biographical reconstruction instead of compelling storytelling, stopping short of the finish line just when you think he’s found his stride. At its core, the story itself doesn’t allow much leeway for strokes of creative brilliance — a mismatch of a filmmaker’s reputation and material that doesn’t allow him to go much of anywhere. But Serkis still takes the straightest road through already placid terrain and crafts a film that’s ultimately suffocating in its harmlessness. C