BFI LFF 2017: Breathe (2017)

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At the age of 28, Robin Cavendish contracted polio in Kenya in 1958, resulting in him paralysed from the neck down. He was only given three months to live. However, defying the odds, he became one of the longest surviving polio survivors in Great Britain, finally passing away in 1994 at the age of 64. 23 years after his death, his son – film producer and The Imaginarium Studios co-founder Jonathan Cavendish – is bringing his father’s story to the big screen with the help of Imaginarium co-founder Andy Serkis.

Breathe stars Andrew Garfield as Robin and Claire Foy as his wife, Diana. The film shows their dedication to improving the lives of the disabled worldwide, despite Robin being permanently dependent on a mechanical respirator.

Best-known for his prolific work with motion capture, Breathe is an unexpected choice to mark Serkis’ directorial debut. With its sweeping African landscapes and upper-class characters, it’s reminiscent of classic, epic love stories on par with Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music. However, while romance is an aspect, there is a risk of over-romanticising the story that occasionally takes the focus from Robin’s struggle.

While recent biopics such as The Theory of Everything and The Dallas Buyers’ Club have been for the most part quite sombre affairs, Breathe remains quite joyful. It keeps Robin’s zest for life and his mission to improve the lives of fellow polio sufferers at the forefront. Jonathan’s personal involvement highlights a deeper sentimental attachment behind the film while William Nicholson’s touching screenplay creates a timely love story that doesn’t overly dwell on the negative. Thankfully, Serkis plays it safe with his subtle direction, allowing the cinematography and his talented cast to convey the sentimentality of this story.

Garfield shines as Robin, whose quiet determination in improving the quality of life of polio sufferers is complemented by Foy’s calm, dedicated Diana. The supporting cast is also great, ranging from upbeat inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) and Diana’s loyal twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (both played by Tom Hollander).

While it presents itself as a quaint romance, Serkis has chosen a wonderful story as his directorial debut feature. Endearing, inspirational and beautifully shot, Breathe is an emotional journey that highlights powerful performances from Garfield and Foy.

Director: Andy Serkis, William Nicholson (scr.)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan, Jonathan Hyde
Runtime: 117 minutes
Country: UK, USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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