Biopics are standard Oscar-season fare, and it’s fair to call them out as Oscar bait. That alone doesn’t determine the quality of the actual film at hand, though. An unconventional biopic can offer something exciting and unexpected, and a biopic that conforms to many of the tropes people expect can still offer something significant for audiences to take in. Somewhat surprisingly, Breathe, the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, falls pretty squarely into the latter category. Considering the groundbreaking work Serkis has done as an actor via motion-capture from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring through this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, the fact that he’d largely go with something so conventional (largely – there’s one aspect of the film that feels true to Serkis) is surprising, but Breathe has a story that manages to tug at the right heartstrings, aided by standout performances from Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.
Robin Cavendish (Garfield) is a tea broker who successfully manages to woo socialite Diana Blacker (Foy). The pair make for a charming couple, and they seem fated for a charmed life together. Then Robin contracts polio. With his body in near-full paralysis and a respirator responsible for his breathing, Robin urges Diana to let him die so she can move on with her life, but she refuses. Instead, she works to provide a better quality of life than the hospital bed in which he appears doomed to live. She manages to sneak him out of the hospital and into a new home so that she can look after him, and with the help of Robin’s inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), she’s able to help Robin come back into society via a special wheelchair with a respirator built in. In turn, Robin becomes an advocate for others living with disabilities, urging those who care for them to provide better standards for their quality of life.
Again, it’s pretty conventional material. What makes it work as well as it does are the film’s ability to tug at its audience’s heartstrings at just the right moments, and the work of a standout cast. With the latter, both Garfield and Foy are excellent choices for the leads. Garfield brings his adorable charm to the role, while still allowing for moments of controlled anger. Foy, meanwhile, manages to show the conflict her character feels throughout most of the film, as she works to stay positive while also working tirelessly to make her husband’s life as bearable as possible. They’re supported by a strong cast, including Tom Hollander as Diana’s twin brothers (here’s where Serkis’ work in motion capture comes into play). And while this may be Serkis’ first time directing, he does a more than solid job moving the story along. Breathe is a polished, solid entry into the biopic field that also provides a pair of excellent, Oscar-worthy performances.