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Review: Breathe

October 20, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Dramatizing the life of disability rights advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), Breathe is a pretty good biopic that is notable for being the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, a celebrated actor who has delivered memorable motion-capture performances in both the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes series.

At the beginning of the film, Robin is a British tea broker in the 1950s who goes on honeymoon with his wife Diana (Claire Foy) in Kenya, when he is struck with polio and left paralyzed from the neck down, at the same time she discovers that she is pregnant.

Robin is only able to breathe with the help of a respirator, and is initially confined to a hospital bed, losing his will to live.  But he is able to survive thanks to the dedication of his wife, who brings him home and takes over the job of caregiver, also allowing him to spend time with his young son Jonathan.  Robin becomes an advocate for disability rights, working to help invent invaluable accessibility devices like the respirator wheelchair and hydraulic lifts, allowing him and countless others who were institutionalized at the time to gain unprecedented independence.

Andy Serkis shows a sure hand behind the camera, and Breathe is a handsomely mounted production that has the feel of a classic biopic and period piece, for better and for worse.  This well-worn approach can make the film feel a bit slow moving and melodramatic at times, and it does seem to be playing it overly safe, shying away from exploring some of the darker aspects of its true story and how people with disabilities were being treated at the time.  But the film is heightened by some lovely cinematography courtesy of Robert Richardson, and is carried by good performances from its strong cast.

Andrew Garfield does a fine job of carrying the film, delivering a moving performance that relies almost completely on his expressive face.  Claire Foy also does quietly affecting work here, nicely showing the resilient spirit of her character.  With Robin and Diana’s real life son Jonathan Cavendish serving as producer on the film, Breathe is reassuringly respectful of its subjects, making this a decent biopic that appropriately tugs at the heartstrings.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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