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Monday, October 23, 2017

Breathe

It's clear that Breathe was made with the best of intentions, but as a docudrama, it's rather flat and uninformed.  The movie tells the true story of Robin Cavendish, who after being paralyzed with Polio, spent the rest of his life improving the lives of patients stricken with the same disease, and giving them a chance to live a life outside of the hospital.  The movie lets us know how important his efforts were, but the man himself remains a total enigma for the film's entirety.

When we first see Robin (played by Andrew Garfield), he's a strapping young man who falls in love at first sight with the lovely young Diana (Claire Foy).  He's told he doesn't stand a chance with her by a friend.  Cut to the next scene, and Robin and Diana are enjoying their first date and deeply in love.  One scene later, the pair are married, and exploring Africa together.  That's the kind of movie it is.  It gives us some cold hard facts about the man at the center of the film, but it never truly opens him up so we know who he is or what he thinks about.  A few scenes later, Robin starts showing the very early stages of the disease, and later collapses.  He's taken to the hospital where a glum-faced doctor informs Diana that he is going to be paralyzed and likely bedridden for the rest of his life.  She is told that patients with his condition are not expected to live full or meaningful lives.  Hearing this, Robin begins to wish for death.  But Diana will not let him give up.  She is pregnant, and wants him to live to see their son.

This leads you to think that the bond that Robin will build with his future son will likely play a key role in the film, but you would be wrong.  He spends very little onscreen time with the boy, and I think they only have two conversations in the entire movie, one of which takes place in the last 10 minutes.  By that point, the son looks to be in his late teens.  The boy, named Jonathan, spends most of the movie running about the corners of the screen, or playing with the family dog.  As for Robin, his wife and him fight to get him out of the hospital, so he can receive the care at home.  There's a stingy old doctor (Jonathan Hyde), who naturally is dressed all in black, and plays his role as if his sole direction was to scowl at the camera as much as possible.  He does not like the idea of Robin receiving care outside of the hospital.  But, the rest of the staff are much more understanding and nice.  You know this, because they don't wear black.  They help Robin escape from the hospital, and set up a system so that the artificial breathing device that keeps him alive can be hooked up in his own home.

Once at home, Robin is surrounded by friends and loved ones, has some parties in the garden, and begins to become inspired with ways that he can live better.  First, he has a friend build a wheelchair that has a portable breathing device so that he can go outside.  Then he figures out ways how he can change the car so that his chair will fit inside, and he can go for Sunday drives with his wife and son.  He figures out how he can travel with his chair, and takes a vacation to Spain with his family.  He gets to speak in front of a group of doctors about the importance of the research he's doing, and how people suffering from Polio just like him can benefit from it.  I have no doubt that all of these things happened.  But the movie never gives any of these events the dramatic weight that they need, so the movie frequently feels flat instead of uplifting.  And at the center of it all is the film's main issue, in that we have no idea who Robin is, or who he was before he was stricken with the disease.

Andrew Garfield does a great job with his performance, and does an effective job as coming across as paralyzed.  He has all the makings of a protagonist we can get behind, and there are even certain moments where his acting rises above the underwritten role and grabs our sympathies.  But in the back of my mind, I couldn't shake the fact that I had no idea who he really was.  What does he miss about his old life before he became ill?  Does he get frustrated with his current existence sometimes?  Does the constant care he requires at home ever take its toll on Diana, who is more or less depicted as a Saint who never once wavers or loses hope in her husband.  These are all the kind of things you would expect the movie would at least look at, but it chooses instead to have a lot of shots of sun-swept vistas while piano music twinkles away in the background, spelling out every good emotion.

I have no doubt that the Cavendishes experienced a lot more setbacks and hardships than this movie lets on.  If you were to believe this screenplay, life for the family was quite jovial.  Except for the inevitable third act crisis that naturally leads to some tear-jerking scenes, the worst thing that happens here is that Robin's son accidentally unplugs the machine that keeps Robin alive at one point while he's chasing after the dog.  There is also a scene where the machine blows a fuse, but everyone manages to keep his spirit up while it's being fixed, and even throw a party around him.  There's no sense of drama here.  It simply recaps his accomplishments, and lets us know that he was a really good guy, then sends us on our way.  When you realize the conversations and thoughts that the real life Robin and Diana must have had during their experiences, there's so much wasted potential here that it gets to be a bit staggering.

Breathe marks the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, who in recent years has revolutionized motion capture acting by creating characters as diverse as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings to Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films.  I've often found his performances fascinating, and have strongly supported the notion that he deserves a special Oscar of some kind to credit the work he has done.  Given this, I was excited to see what kind of movie he would make.  I must admit, a cut and dry by the numbers biofilm was the last thing that came to mind.  I know he has a great movie inside of him, and I look forward to his next turn behind the camera, where I'm sure we'll see much more of his unique talent. 

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