Any adjective that comes to mind when I consider the experience of Breathe would never make it as a pull quote in the marketing of the film. It’s an easy movie. So easy, in fact, that it could be even considered boring. It’s innocuous and inoffensive. Quiet and restrained. I know that this all sounds like a condemnation, but the fact of the matter is that what is most impressive about Breathe is its unimpressiveness. And that is a sincere compliment.
The film retells the true story of the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a man stricken with polio at age 28, causing him to be permanently paralyzed from the neck down and reliant upon a respirator to breathe. His wife, Diana (Claire Foy), was pregnant at the time the disease took hold, and is suddenly confronted with the responsibility of altering the course of her life. As to be expected, there are emotional waves of despair, determination, hope, terror, and profound love. The threat of Robin dying is always present. Diana’s gumption is the only force that keeps this small family afloat.
And yet, except for one or two tense moments, Breathe hardly feels like a drama, particularly not one about real-life people that endured intense real-life pain and suffering. It’s certainly not a comedy, but the film’s tone, pacing, and cinematography are too light and airy to be considered tragic. The film seems to consciously avoid delving into deep pits of emotion.
There’s an argument to be made that if Breathe injected more tragedy into its story that it’d boost its placidity a little. But that instinct tends to lead to heavy-handedness, an earmark of biopics so often used that it starts to feel like all award-show movies are just supposed to be slogs.
Biopics are a tedious business. Their filmmakers often try to do too much, to shove so much of a person’s life into two hours that every little incident is forced to carry weight and meaning. As though hindsight isn’t enough of a measure for significance, the filmmaker feels the need to insert artificial significance to make sure we reallyknow that this person is significant.
Director Andy Serkis and team avoid these pitfalls entirely, showing a kind of nuance that reads like remarkable self-control. While that may make the film less palatable for those expecting steep emotional peaks and valleys, it allows for the Cavendish’s story to speak for itself in a lovelier way than it would have otherwise.
Breathe is not a rousing, impassioned call to action on behalf of the severely disabled, but it is impactful. It just never gets bogged down in its own self-importance. The meaningful shades of Robin and Diana’s history are shown in muted simplicity. It’s heartfelt, but not sentimental, which seems indicative of that classic British stiff-upper-lip. Its overall tone feels reflective of the couple’s love for one another, which shouldn’t be a surprise since their real-life son, Jonathan Cavendish, produced the film.
Since Robin cannot breathe on his own after about ten minutes in, the pumping of the respirator whirrs in the background of most of the film. That whirr has such a presence that you forget that it’s even there, until it stops, and in a flash you remember how vital the device is. It’s small proof that Breathe is so adept at restraint, it even knows how to use silence to its advantage. It’s a film that actually allows itself to breathe.