It would possibly have benefited first time director Andy Serkis to have taken potentially another subject for his debut, writes Darren Bevan.

The wannabe inspirational true story of Robin Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield) is perhaps a little too close to home for Serkis, whose friend Jonathan Cavendish is the producer of this film.

But then perhaps, there may not have been as much empathy and tenderness in parts of this deeply sanitised biography (and almost hagiography) of Cavendish, who was left paralysed by polio in Africa in the late 50s.

Against all medical advice, his loving wife Diana (The Crown star Claire Foy) drags him out of the clinic, respirator and all, to give him a shot at living in his trapped condition. Defying the odds, and with plenty of home care, Cavendish begins to live a life again – and sets out changing conditions for others suffering a similar condition.

Intended as inspirational is no bad thing, and certainly swathes of this mix the humour of French hit The Intouchables with a sort of British stiff upper lip cum don’t-let-the-buggers-grind-you-down ethos that in parts it’s hard not to get swept along with.

Foy is the dazzling diamond of the piece – and the film’s title Breathe, as well as referring to the necessity of Cavendish’s condition could also refer to the life breathed into him by one woman’s unswerving devotion and belief. Equally, Garfield, along with plummy English accent and confined for parts of the film to act with nothing but facials and head nodding manages to imbue Cavendish with both understandable frustration and desperation as the depression sets in.

Serkis keeps things light, starting the film with a dizzying meeting, courtship and marriage of Diana and Robin, which sets the pace. Along with a dual role for Rev star Tom Hollander, there’s plenty of breezy laughs and 40s style Englishness to just about keep the twee from rotting your cinematic teeth.

Along with some top down shots, Serkis keeps the tone going and the atmosphere jovial.

But when the inevitable darkness calls, the real problem with Breathe starts to become noticeable.

It’s very much a sanitised view of what a life-changing condition can do to those involved and Serkis relies on the japes of the darker moments to make it all feel slighter than it should. At two hours, there’s no arguing that a maudlin and depressing feel could turn Breathe into a slog, but by going too far the other way (perhaps at the insistence of the producer and with his personal history to the subject), the film’s levity becomes its undoing and the triumph is battered by a beatific desire to simply be English about it and laugh it all off.

Ultimately, Breathe may be a film about the human possibility and of endurance, but it’s also one that sacrifices its smaller moments for a mish-mash of tone. 

All in all, Breathe‘s fallacies are greater than what unfortunately its lead actors bring to the table – and while its intentions are good and true, its cloying sentimentality and desire to breeze over reality ironically finds the film narratively gasping for breath.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan
Director: Andy Serkis

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