It’s probably not fair to compare actor Andy Serkis’ directorial debut “Breathe” (Bleecker Street) with the Oscar-winning “The Theory of Everything,” but people will. Both films are based on true stories. Both films deal with young British men who develop significant disabilities in the prime of life. Both films are about the power of love and the strength of the human spirit to overcome the odds. Unfortunately, when comparing both films, it’s “Breathe” that will come up short (of breath).
Hitting US theaters as it does at around the same time as other true-story films, including “Stronger,” “Battle of the Sexes” and even “Victoria & Abdul” only tends to sharpen the focus on the film’s flaws. The fault, however, is not in the stars. Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy are both terrific.
In the late 1950s, tea broker Robin Cavendish (Garfield) meets ravishing “famous heartbreaker” Diana (Foy) at a cricket match. Following a whirlwind courtship, in which her older twin brothers (both played by Tom Hollander) attempt to talk her out of it, Claire marries Robin. While at the British Embassy In 1959, with Diana pregnant with their first child, Robin begins to experience weakness, followed by night sweats and then paralysis.
Sent to hospital, put on a ventilator and diagnosed with polio, the future looks bleak for Robin. He suffers from depression, won’t look at his newborn son Jonathan, and repeatedly asks to be left to die. When he becomes aware that Diana won’t just stand by and let him die, he begins to make progress, learning to swallow, speaking again, even spitting on a priest!
Diana is determined to make life better for Robin, beginning with sneaking him out of the hospital where he is a virtual prisoner, and into the dilapidated home she purchased for them. By having daily observed the nurses in the ward where Robin had been living, as well as asking lots of questions, Diana takes on the task of caring for Robin at home. This isn’t without problems, including the time the dog accidentally unplugged the respirator. Nevertheless, Robin continues to make progress.
A turning point occurs, both in Robin’s life, and in the message of the film, when, at Robin’s request, his inventor friend Teddy (Hugh Bonneville) concocts a wheel chair in which a respirator is also included in the apparatus. By the mid-1960s, with various adjustments made to the chair, Robin, Diana and Jonathan are able to travel. In 1971 they even take a trip to Spain.
The most momentous change occurs when Robin meets with the doctor (Stephen Mangan) who founded the Disability Research Foundation. Robin and Diana seek financing to have these special chairs mass-produced. Robin speaks at a medical conference in Germany where he asks doctors to free their differently-abled patients from the prisons that hospital had become to so many of them. Because of Robin and Diana, severely disabled people who had been previously hidden away from society in sterile, locked wards, are given the chance to have an independent life of their own choosing.
At the same time, Robin’s own body begins to fail him. The battered lining of his lungs causes him to cough up blood, leading to the potential for him to drown in his own blood. Like Robin, this is where “Breathe” takes a turn for the worst. Ultimately, Garfield and Foy’s performances, strong as they are, aren’t enough to breathe the necessary life into the movie to sustain it. Rating: C