Breathe is in many ways emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the Film business these days. As you read this, you’d probably be aware of the feeding frenzy going on as one sanctimonious, pious individual after the other can’t wait to (rightfully) demonize Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious behavior. The issue is, the timing, of course. Despite the fact everyone and their uncle know of, or heard of his deplorable behavior, for decades even. (I mean come on, how many settlements were there? Rose McGowan's suit was known of for quite some time as well as many others.) It didn’t all come out until TWC was almost out of business. (The Producers of their two biggest releases last year, Gold being one, The Founder the other, sued the company for not spending enough money on their respective releases and dumping them on the market at the same time.) Not exactly a flush time for the Company, of course, that’s the time to burn them at the stake, not when they’re spending lavishly on P&A campaigns for several features a year. Hollywood’s always been known for its bravery.
What does this have to do with the powerful directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis? Just like the films they cover, the film critic cabal is just about as brave and insightful. Is it that the movies aren’t what they once were, or the people writing about them are cowardly lemmings? I remember seeing a fairly notable film critic I knew from various festival screenings at a preview of PTA's Inherent Vice. After I discreetly messaged him what he thought of the film. In essence, did he think it was as much of a muddled mess as myself? (Yes, I understand it has it's rabid fans, but I'm in very safe territory saying it's far from Anderson's best work.) As much as I was able to get was, "I'm still puzzling it over." Translation? It's like the old joke about 2 agents discussing a screenplay, "what did you think of the script?" "I don't know, no one else has read it yet." Hollywood=Bravery! Of course, it’s a given these days that if a film earnestly deals with a true story about the courage and bravery of a couple who together overcome staggering odds in order to help millions around the world lead a better life. That film just must be a piece of shit, huh? One would think so if you listened to the maddening crowd, but the good news is DP Robert Richardson reinvents himself once again and helps Serkis bring wonderfully rich characters portrayed by Andrew Garfield & Claire Foy to life. Breathe is the true story of Robin & Diane Cavendish, (the film Produced by their son, Jonathan.) Robin, in the prime of his life is struck down by polio. Unlike most sufferers, he’s permanently crippled and needs a breathing machine to keep his lungs going, which eventually presents problems of its own. After the initial shock and distraught desolation Robin goes on a journey of discovery of what’s possible for those physically limited to a wheel chair. He goes even further in blazing a path for handicapped people around the world.
Admittedly, Breathe does follow a tried and true paradigm seen recently with James Marsh’s compelling effort in The Theory of Everything which garnered Eddie Redmayne an Oscar. Redmayne is clearly a talented actor, but frankly not quite the body of work Andrew Garfield has put together. Garfield’s breakout year, one could argue, is 2010 in which he headlined the criminally under rated Never Let Me Go and the kick off to the brilliant Red Riding Trilogy: Red Riding 1974.
|Andrew Garfield in Red Riding 1974|
|Andy Serkis in 24 Hour Party People|
Around the same time Marsh’s somberly, bizarre Wisconsin Death Trip and years later Man on Wire were making the rounds. (Marsh directed the second segment of the Red Riding Trilogy, 1980.) Then films like Harry Brown w/ Michael Caine and the brilliant Sean Harris (also in The Red Riding Trilogy- and of course Ian Curtiss in 24 Hour Party People. It should be noted The Governor on The Walking Dead- David Morrissey also came from the aforementioned trilogy. Speaking of TWD, Lennie James' Morgan was Steve Coogan's mate in 24...) The Imitation Game another solid effort with terrific performances that again follows the fatally flawed and jeopardized hero paradigm as he helps win WW2. Concurrently, one could throw in the Churchill biopics, one starring the wonderfully skillful Bryan Cox, and the other Joe Wright/Working Title production Darkest Hour featuring another chameleon like tour de force from Gary Oldman.
But, what the American film Industry and its inherent media hangers on have not figured it yet, is it’s all in the execution. And, after all a little originality does go along way. It’s laughable to read so many complain about the pedestrian sentimentality and predictability of Breathe when ya know, we’re on our what 16th or 17th iteration of Star Wars? Or what… not the original Planet of the Apes series, not the Tim Burton version, what 11th or 12th film w/ Apes in title? Really folks? Really? The simple truth is Breathe delivers on all accounts. A strong script by William Nicholson, fantastic performances with Claire Foy every bit up to the challenge of matching Garfield’s skillful acuity, and Tom Hollander as the Blacker twins, Diane Cavendish’s (Foy) brother’s bringing in wonderful comic relief.
Most interestingly, the camera work by Robert Richardson beguiled me. Seeing this film, as well as many others, in preview screenings as a WGAw member, I purposefully go in knowing as little as possible about a film. Being a lifelong fan of Richardson’s, his muscular style cultivated on films with Oliver Stone like JFK, NBK, and Nixon very much influenced my own work as a young filmmaker. While there were a few things that felt familiar. In particular, a skillfully crafted scene very reminiscent of Born on the Fourth of July in which the newly paralyzed Robin dreams himself able to simply rid himself of his breathing tube and make his way out of the hospital ‘prison’. Eerily familiar to a scene in Born in which Cruise’s Ronnie Kovic imagines himself walking out of his wheel chair and beating a path out of the crummy Bronx VA hospital. One could make the case both scenes derive from Steve McQueen’s character in Franklin Schaffner’s Papillion envisioning himself and Dustin Hoffman shuffling off the Island as old men. Regardless, when the credits rolled at the end of the picture, it was a complete surprise to see it was shot by the brilliant Cinematographer, once again reinventing his look and style to fit the material. It was a marvelous picture to look at but perfectly contained within the material.
Breathe certainly does pull at the heartstrings, but absolutely earns all those moments w/ an exceedingly well made picture: great performances anchoring a strong script, shot by a world class master, very well paced and leading us to an emotionally powerful climax. But hey, if you’re still clamoring for the 23rd Star Wars installment, by all means, have at it….