Category Archives: Biopic

LFF: Breathe

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.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Jackie

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Pablo Larrain’s first of two biopics released this year (The second being Neruda) is a tamely unorthodox character study of Jacqueline Kennedy, following her husband’s assassination. Using an interview as a rather unnecessary framing device, Jackie details her anguish and subsequent resilience to lovingly memorialise him, visualised through a series of flashbacks that agitatedly shift between settings. She’s holding her dead husband in her lap, ingraining a grotesque, lingering image. She’s confiding her insecurities to a priest, played by John Hurt, in sequences too brief to impact. And she’s arguing with several members of the White House regarding her husband’s funeral.

This argument forms the crux of Jackie’s narrative, an axis on which to apply themes of legacy, grief, and letting go. Natalie Portman stays true to the character, and her despair is certainly believable. Yet the performance is inherently flawed: Portman, in attempting to resurrect Jacqueline Kennedy with a desperately faithful performance, draws attention to the unnaturalness of the character’s mannerisms, and, most noticeably, her accent. It’s a loyal depiction, sure, but it’s hard to pry the celebrity away from the figure when the accent disengages the viewer from the drama.

Shot on 16mm, Jackie is framed and textured to recreate its era, archaically draining the image of its colour and sensibly placing Portman in bold, sanguine shades. The intent is clear: it’s Jackie in isolation, disembodied from normality, left to grasp at what’s left of reason in the face of her husband’s death. This idea is furthered via Mica Levi’s score, a deliciously foreboding melody that phonetically encapsulates Jackie’s friable state of mind. Crescendoing to a forceful and resonant finale, Jackie ends strongly, but you can’t help but feel that Larrain’s artistry is too subdued to memorialise the film with the same vigor that Jackie memorialised her husband.

-Gus Edgar

The Theory of Everything

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Man, the boy can act.

Yet another addition to the increasing abundant amount of biopics released in 2014, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything tells the story of Stephen Hawking, and how the tragic case of his motor neuron disease affected his life, and more importantly, his love life. From an aspiring physicist to a terminally-ill patient, the plot is interesting enough to maintain attention to the film, though never enough to truly captivate the audience.

As far as performances go, The Theory of Everything is one of the best of the year. Eddie Redmayne is incredible as Hawking; his mannerisms perfect, pained emotion sprawled over his face and limp hands delicately poised. While Keaton looks to be the frontrunner for his turn in Birdman, an Oscar is an achievable, and deserving award for a man of Redmayne’s talents. Felicity Jones, too, portrays Hawking’s strong-willed wife with superb subtlety. Her hinted frustration and tragic admiration of Hawking is conveyed with aplomb by Jones. Her performance is only overshadowed by Redmayne.

It’s a shame then, that such a complex and intriguing performance is burdened by an underdeveloped and shallow character. The portrayal of Hawking’s terrifying motor neuron disease is moving and sentimental while rarely being manipulative. The raw showcase of such a frightening and difficult disease is deserving of more appreciation by its audience: to act in such a way as to make having the disease completely believable is incredibly challenging, taking every last ounce of energy. And while the depiction of Hawking’s disease is spot-on, that’s sadly all we get to see: our view of Hawking’s character never delves under the skin, showing the damage it causes but never Hawking’s own sentiments towards it. Redmayne’s character becomes a vehicle for the disease – a huge negative of the film when considering its ambition.

And while The Theory of Everything does wonders to portray the romance weaved throughout Hawking’s life, you can’t help but feel that this biopic is one big opportunity missed; Stephen Hawking is a spectacular character and deserves more attention towards other aspects of his life – his overwhelming intelligence and achievements are mentioned and shown, but all play second-fiddle to a wavering, melodramatic romance that may not be out of place in an ITV soap. A much more expansive portrayal of Hawking’s life would work wonders: the flick’s potential to rivet is degraded into a film that merely manages to uphold interest.

As far as biopics go, The Theory of Everything is much more entertaining than most. Yet it cannot escape biopic conformities; aside from incongruous cinematography, there is very little to set this flick apart from its competition. It contains outstanding performances, but so do  Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game, 2014’s other critically-acclaimed non-fictional character studies. The Theory of Everthing is worth watching for the performances alone – but the film is only a decent one, with its rather confined plot rendering it unable to excel.

– Gus Edgar