For Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), life was peaches and cream, especially once Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) came into the picture. The two met at a croquet match and after a brief montage that doesn’t allow the viewer to properly process how or why these two would work together as a couple, they’re married! No wait, they’re also expecting a child! Lots of stuff is happening in these opening scenes. Something else tremendous occurs for the couple when Robin is stricken by polio, which leaves him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Now a guy who was previously all about doing exotic traveling and parties is confined to a hospital bed, a situation that has Robin convinced his life is over.
But dutiful wife Diana is not giving up on her husband and decides to get him out of the hospital and conscript Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to make a wheelchair that will allow Robin to get around with ease and ensure he has access to the oxygen tank he needs to survive. Everyone, including doctors at the hospital Robin stayed at for so many years, say such an invention is impossible, but Teddy isn’t giving up and manages to make such a creation a reality. It’s a remarkable invention that alters Robin’s world and makes him wonder what else is possible for him and others with similar forms of paralysis.
Andy Serkis makes his directorial debut with Breathe and it’s truly dumbfounding how a guy who’s been on the cusp of cutting-edge acting techniques could also be the filmmaker behind such trite drivel as this biopic drama. William Nicholson’s screenplay adapts the life of Robin Cavendish in a manner that’s oh so stodgy and devoid of discernable humanity. The various characters in this story just don’t act like human beings, they’re all so polished and refined in their interactions it’s like they’re imitating those two overly polite Goofy Gophers from classic Looney Tunes cartoons. Is it any wonder then that Breathe utterly fails in creating a human being out of its real-life lead character?
Instead of rendering Robin Cavendish as a proper person, Breathe opts to just make him primarily a blank slate before a climactic speech given at a scientific summit allows Robin to garner further layers as a character by also becoming a mouthpiece for hackneyed platitudes about surviving, with one such platitude being eerily and distractingly close to a key line of dialogue from The Croods. You’d think ever since Simple Jack lampooned Hollywood’s recurring trope of dehumanizing people with mental and/or physical handicaps in the name of hamfisted sentimentality that this kind of storytelling element would have become slightly less prevalent, but here comes Breathe trotting it out again to embarrassing results.
The lack of depth given to Robin Cavendish means Andrew Garfield, the guy who made that Huckleberry Hound accent for his lead character in Hacksaw Ridge somehow work, is stuck with a nothing role that results in him giving handily his weakest dramatic performance ever while a similar lack of dimensions befalls the character’s wife Diana, meaning Claire Foy gives a listless performance that’s about as forgettable as the movie she inhabits. Even Tom Hollander as twins doesn’t result in all that fun of a performance, the brief examples of the two engaging in some mild comedy (like trying to get a big bed up a staircase) just make the duo come off as a Thompson & Thompson knock-off.
As I said before, Andy Serkis is a guy who shows true blue innovation in his acting performances so I was astounded with how generic the direction in Breathe is, there’s really nothing in the films visual approach that differentiates it from other similar recent period-era British biopics. The lack of any originality or even attempts at depth just sink the entire production, especially a climax that has Robin saying good-bye to some of his closest friends that’s supposed to elicit tears but I was dumbfounded that the movie expected these various people we’d either never seen before or barely seen before were supposed to be Robin’s best buddies. Exploring that avenue of Robin’s life would have meant Breathe would have to treat its protagonist like an actual person though and that’s just not something the film is interested in.