“I don’t want to just survive. I want to truly live.”
Even by the low standards set by the first movie, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is so hollow and humorless, only the most live and die type of comic book movie fan can adore it. Everything about the sequel screams “contractual obligation” as there isn’t a drop of creativity to be found. What once seemed to have the promise of a John Carpenter-like tale about an ordinary man battling his dark side is replaced with scenes of the titular symbiote trying to make breakfast (It’s funny because he’s not human, get it?!) and going to a rave…because that’s what fans were wanting? It’s difficult to tell if the movie was a result of severe studio interference, or if this was as genuinely creative as director Andy Serkis could get with the project. Either way, Venom has every right to remain grumpy.
It’s too bad that the movie bears Serkis’ name and that for many this will be their introduction to him as a director. While the king of mo-cap performances is still new to the role of film director, his output has resulted in a lackluster Venom, a disturbing version of Mowgli and one of the most beautiful releases of 2017 that virtually no one saw.
Based on the true story of the film’s producer’s parents, Breathe tells the story of successful British tea importer Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), who is in the midst of martial bliss with wife Diana (Claire Foy) and impending fatherhood when he is suddenly struck with polio. After battling depression immediately following his diagnosis, he instructs Diana to take him home. Over the years, the couple overcomes a series of obstacles as they cling to their family and help change the face of what it means to live with a disability.
For someone with as much of an effects background as Serkis has, Breathe seems like a somewhat curious choice for a directorial debut. Although the film is a breathtaking experience (no pun intended), there isn’t much about it that lets the Serkis fans know come through, at least on the surface. In actuality, it’s that fact which makes Breathe feel so noteworthy. Sure, the pacing is rather workman-like and the script hits plenty of the beats one could expect to find in this kind of story. Even if there are moments which the director could have definitely lingered a bit more, nothing feels skipped over and no one feels compromised, which is a feat easier said than done when telling a true-life drama such as this. For someone who loves the wonders of cinema’s technical side as much as he does, Serkis doesn’t fail to give his audience one stunning shot after another. Draped in dreamy cinematography, virtually every other frame of Breathe is a work of art that’s worthy enough to be hung in a gallery. In this way, Serkis has let us in to Robin and Diana’s world and given us an intimacy that’s all but invaluable for a film experience like this.
There isn’t much time spent within Breathe talking about the medical side of polio and literally none spent on its eradication. Nor should there be. This isn’t a film about a disease, but rather the people who didn’t let their lives and their love be defined by it. It’s the bond between Robin and Diana which gives the film its true purpose. We spend enough time with the pair before Robin is struck down to get to know them as a couple with their own language and a complete and total adoration for one another, making what happens to the former all the more devastating. Breathe chronicles the mentality regarding people with polio, both from the medical community and the patients themselves, all of whom share a hopelessness with regards to any kind of future. A scene with Robin being wheeled in to a room full of patients in iron lungs is both telling and incredibly emotional and shows just how adept Serkis is at capturing moments which are human and real. Overall, the way Serkis and the script chart the couple’s fight against Robin’s depression and the complicated path they take towards making as vibrant and full a life for the both of them outside of the hospital, makes Breathe both a love story and a tale of sheer human strength.
Garfield and Foy are so utterly endearing here and share a chemistry so palpable and joyous, it makes falling in love with their characters the easiest of tasks. Besides knowing Robin and Diana inside and out, the two actors have conjured up a kind of singular shorthand between them that makes the movie an even richer and more rewarding experience than it would have been without their presence. What makes both performances so winning and watchable is the fact that both Garfield and Foy play their characters not with pity, but with a respect and admiration that makes it impossible not to get pulled in even further by the work they each give Breathe. Serkis is wise to focus on the magic of this couple and let the camera stay on them as much as he does.
The fall of 2017 was a busy time for an awards-ready film like Breathe to stand out, a fact that was evident by the middling response it got from audiences and the small handful of awards acclaim it received. Like I said before, Breathe was never meant to be a film about a disease. As far as polio is concerned, the science is documented enough to the point where those who wish can research it on their own time. Instead, Serkis’ film is about the emotional impact of something that was scary and alien. It’s about the essence of a marriage and how it managed to flourish, regardless of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Finally, it’s about what such a horrible force threatened to do to the human spirit and how the human spirit fought against it.