A new addition to the ‘tragic romance where a man is inflicted with a terminal illness and through his wife’s undying love is able to live much longer than expected’ genre is Breathe, taking after 2014’s similarly saccharine The Theory of Everything. It’s a competently-made drama about polio and its effect on the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife, Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) that’s more removing than moving, belittling its central characters to soapy archetypes, and its supporting cast to samey beacons of hope.
Breathe opens up promisingly, at least, with a swooning 50s pastiche rendered assuredly with stylised fonts and an achingly beautiful melody. Cavendish and Blacker immediately fall in love, and soon they’re dancing as silhouettes in the African sunset; their romance isn’t grounded, nor does it need to be: these are the lofty, idealised heights before the inevitable fall.
When the fall (literally, in Cavendish’s case) does emerge, the glamorous 50s backdrop makes way for a more procedural, and altogether unexciting affair. Cavendish is paralysed, and Garfield sells his affliction magnificently with pained gurgles and gurns, but the narrative is just as stationary. One gets the feeling that director Andy Serkis – who is good friends with Cavendish’s real-life son, Tom – was reluctant to spruce up the script with unsympathetic embellishments that would have fictionalised the story – but would have also given us a reason to keep us invested.
It’s a sympathetic take on Cavendish’s character, but also one free of any intense difficulties to overcome. Everything is just so easy, (despite the best efforts of a ridiculous segment involving a dog), making for a pleasant tea-time watch but a frustratingly stale cinematic experience. With convincing on-screen chemistry, this may have been difficult to notice, but Garfield and Foy can’t act their way out of clumsy characterisation. In truth, they are one-note figures, reduced to tired symbols of steely determination. In turn, the audience are reduced to senseless observers, unaffected by Breathe’s insistence on stirring up emotion. Its supporting characters, played by an odd array of British comedians (including Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Mangan and Tom Hollander) simply exacerbate the film’s problem of struggling to amass any sense of conflict. Their comedy, however, is a high-point of the film, bolstered by a sharp script that refrains from melodrama.
As the film nears its close, it becomes what its opening parodied, succumbing to cheesy methods of affectation. It’s a sign of laziness from a director who has clearly worked hard in not just evoking, but reproducing the life of Cavendish. These travails are apparent, but also vary in degrees of success – in straying too close to Cavendish’s son’s account, he has created a film without the dramatic urgency required to entertain – but with enough careful treatment of its subject matter to inspire.