Most actors’ first forays into directing are contained, character-driven dramas, allowing them to focus on what they know best – performances – as they learn the ropes of the more technical sides of things. Andy Serkis is no conventional actor, a true pioneer of the discipline who also has plentiful experience in advisory and second-unit directing roles. That his directorial debut, Breathe, fits the expected pattern is simply due to a production delay in his high-budget live-action Jungle Book (not the Disney one). Studio faith in Serkis as a visual director is clearly well-founded, with a sharp eye for striking, original images elevating Breathe above its rather generic script.
Produced by the son of the lead couple, Breathe follows the remarkable story of the Cavendish family. Stricken with polio and paralysed from the neck down in 1958 on a business trip to Kenya, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was told he had six months left. Instead, with the care of his wife Diana (Claire Foy) and their friends, Robin lived until 1981, along the way becoming an inspiring bastion in the fight for disabled quality of life. William Nicholson’s screenplay carries few surprises, feeling like a bit of a mishmash of The Theory of Everything, A United Kingdom, and The Crown, but he strikes a more jovial tone than one might have expected.
This allows for Garfield to be on immensely charming form, throwing out gently funny quips in even the direst of situations. Foy’s role is rather more reactive, but she does push it beyond the ‘long-suffering wife with endless patience’ cliché that it could have been. In the supporting cast, Hugh Bonneville is a lot of fun as Robin’s inventor friend Teddy who crafts a wheelchair that doubles as Robin’s iron lung, allowing a mobility that doctors thought impossible for polio patients, and Tom Hollander utterly steals the show as Diana’s brothers, Bloggs and David.
Any film with a double dose of Hollander (often playing against himself, with whom he has excellent chemistry) is bound to be fun, while Garfield and Foy have an ease to their interactions that lends a vital, lived-in weight to the relationship. There’s minimal conflict in the story, and though the travels and triumphs of the Cavendishes are entertaining in the moment, the whole thing can feel a little flat, especially on the approach to the ending. Sentimentality is never an inherently bad thing in a story like this, but Breathe sometimes trips over its own earnestness.
Serkis’s direction is often remarkable, not only in getting cracking performances from both his adult and child cast, but also in crafting immersive sweeping vistas and surreal sequences like a visit to a state-of-the-art iron lung hospital wing in Germany. It’s a bizarre, sci-fi-esque installation, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s framing does a great job of capturing both the human and alien elements of the room. Some unconvincing old man makeup towards the end is the only visual misstep of a film far more technically excellent than it needed to be.
True stories of disabled history are rare in cinema, making Breathe an important film as well as an enjoyable one (though its dips into colonial history are dicier). Well-acted across the board, it also announces Serkis as a very exciting directing talent, and the proposition of him taking on a more technically demanding challenge is a very enticing one. He’s already pushed the art of acting into the future, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t eventually pull of the same trick behind the camera.