Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, an adventurous, courageous young man who falls deeply in love with Diana (Claire Foy), who he proceeds to marry, and have a child with (the producer Jonathan). Learning of Diana’s pregnancy during a work trip in Kenya, it’s also here he is diagnosed with polio, leaving him paralysed, living only through a machine which allows him to breathe.
Managing to bring him back home, Robin is confined to the cold, empty walls of a hospital room, and given his life expectancy is so low, and his quality even lower, Diana ignores the doctor’s advice and proceeds to take him home. Polio patients had not been given this freedom before, but as Robin is able to find a semblance of happiness again, even working alongside friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) is creating a portable breathing machine that allows for him to travel the world, he gives hope to fellow sufferers worldwide to show that there is still a fulfilling life to lead after being diagnosed with this incurable disease.
Serkis begins his film in a somewhat hurried fashion, with several short and snappy sequences that disallow the viewer the chance to reflect. Perhaps, similarly to The Theory of Everything, which tells a similar tale of a marriage put under the strain of a life-altering illness, we could spend more time focusing on a fit and healthy Robin, to linger on the small, seemingly innocuous details we take for granted; breathing, talking, walking for ourselves – to appreciate what he’s soon to lose. Conversely, when we do approach the moment he is diagnosed, it’s here the film comes into its element, comparable to another Garfield production in Hacksaw Ridge – another film that begins life as something of a schmaltzy romantic piece, lulling us into a false sense of security before hitting us with the drama.
Initially there was a fear also that the short opening act could lead to a disengagement in regards to the paramount relationship between Robin and Diana, as usually the lack of build up would prove costly for it doesn’t allow us enough time to invest and believe in the marriage at hand. Yet in this instance it simply doesn’t matter, for the true test of love comes post-diagnosis, and from thereon we see how authentic and unconditional their love is, and so it’s no challenge at all to emotionally involve ourselves in it.
Again similarly to The Theory of Eveyrthing, it’s the female lead who impresses most, as Foy turns in a remarkably understated turn. It’s so much more affecting this way as it means if she ever does crack, it carries so much weight. So while Garfield may well get the majority of the plaudits, much like Eddie Redmayne did, there’s something so nuanced about the strength required of the spouse.
Breathe is an immersive tale too, as the overbearing sound of the breathing machine works as a persistent back-drop, a constant reminder of the precarious situation the protagonist is in, and what it is keeping him alive. It’s hard to escape, but that’s entirely the point – after all, it’s all he or Diana could hear from that point onwards.
While frustratingly generic and cliched in parts, Serkis certainly knows its audience and plays to them accordingly. Breathe is a mainstream endeavour that is both uncynical and well-intentioned, so there’s no issues here with its distinct accessibility.