'Breathe' Review: Andrew Garfield Astounds In Andy Serkis' Directorial Debut [TIFF]

As an innovator in the field of motion capture technology, Andy Serkis might possess a greater understanding of the nuances and capabilities of the human face than anyone working in cinema. The knowledge shows early on in Breathe, Serkis' directorial debut, as Andrew Garfield's protagonist Robin Cavendish begins to succumb to paralysis from polio. Serkis shoots his affliction primarily in extreme close-up, a camera length at which Garfield is more than capable at conveying nuance. With just the slightest shift of his glance or the quiver of his lip, Garfield conveys as much as his grandest gestures in other films.

Unsurprisingly, Garfield nails the immediate micro-level specificity necessitated by portraying someone with such a debilitating condition. He's robbed of so many key acting tools: the scope to take in an entire scene, the ability to react in full, the emphasis in his extremities. Yet within this tightly proscribed frame, Garfield still manages the full expressive capabilities for which has garnered great acclaim. In Breathe, he captures that same moving range from elation to depression.

For Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson, the real story of Robin Cavendish is not a tale cut in the mold of a "Great Man" biopic. Robin does not strive to achieve the extraordinary. He merely wishes to reestablish the ordinary, a feat practically unthinkable in the mid-20th century. People in his condition simply did not exist outside of hospitals. Plugged into a respirator that does all the breathing for him, Robin always remains no more than two minutes away from death were the machine to stop operating. Rather than resigning himself to waste away on a stationary cot, he enlists his devoted wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) and many other ingenious friends to invent the tools necessary to enable the life few imagined was possible.

Breathe is precisely the way films should handle disability. Serkis leaves the soapbox at home and never dwells excessively on the pain of the subjects. Once the initial pessimism surrounding the diagnosis wears off, the film avoids making a spectacle of Robin's condition. Serkis does not plead for the world to bestow a posthumous medal on Robin for all the trials and tribulations he endured. He simply wants viewers to realize the tremendous efforts necessary for the disabled community to achieve some degree of what most people consider normalcy.

Serkis might even take the charge a little too seriously, as a matter of fact. Breathe carries on for nearly two hours, a significant amount of which merely covers the banal occurrences that work differently for Robin. While it's refreshing to watch events that feel like more than a Wikipedia summary of a person's life, the cumulative effect winds up becoming counterproductive.

In that time, Nicholson thankfully includes some welcome comic relief in the form of Diana's twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker, both played by Tom Hollander. They essentially function as Tweedledee and Tweedledum in polite society, and they bring a welcome spark of humor in their every appearance. Their continued assistance proves most valuable for Diana, who must also raise the son she conceived with Robin shortly before his paralysis. Breathe depicts little from her perspective and shows scant curiosity in her emotional life, though Foy injects enough vigor and resolve into Diana to avoid the clichéd supportive wife archetype.

Her confidence is most valuable for bringing Robin out of the shadows and back into healthy society where, at the time, few people with his level of disability resided. Robin decries the idea that patients are kept out of sight, hidden in hospitals that function with the same logic of prisons. Though the closest thing Breathe has to a climactic inspirational speech cribs the surviving vs. living dichotomy from 12 Years a Slave, Robin's call to action ought to motivate everyone to consider how they can serve as a better support to one of society's most overlooked groups. He was given months to live and persevered to savor several decades, after all.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10