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FILM REVIEW: BREATHE Drowns You In Tears And Suffocates in Conventionality

FILM REVIEW: BREATHE Drowns You In Tears And Suffocates in Conventionality

Do you remember the Oscar-winning movie Out of Africa? A majestic tale of a Swedish woman travelling to Sub-Saharan Africa on the journey of a lifetime? The picture you may see in the dictionary next to the word “movie epic”? That sort of film, augured perhaps as far back as Gone With the Wind and perfected in Ben-Hur, undoubtedly had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when visual effect technology became cheaper and budgets from the studios exploded. These films were formulaic to a fault but wowed us with their ability to show us the grandness of the world and of perhaps a single human life.

For better or for worse (and I could argue both sides depending on the day of the week) the movie epic as such is no longer revered in the way they may have been as recent as, for example, Gladiator. Technological craft has become, not exclusively, but primarily, the provenance of blockbuster/sci-fi/superhero fare, while grandiosity has given way to subtlety when it comes to cerebral, star-studded, award-winning dramas.

What does this all have to do with the Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy (The Crown) movie Breathe, the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, hitting theaters this weekend? This is all a long-winded way of giving context for why a would-be epic like this film feels stuck in another land, in another time. Breathe, with its aerial shots of the African continent to open the picture, its excessive costumes, its decades-spanning reach, all seem to evoke an approach to storytelling that is no longer refreshing but conventional, no longer awe-inducing but even obsolete. And, frankly, this preface will fill up this page, as Breathe offers little much more to say.

It is the 1950s and, at the start of their young lives, Robin Cavendish (Garfield) and Diana Blacker (Foy), a young bedazzled couple living in Kenya, are struck by a devastating development. Robin is completely paralyzed from the neck down by polio, and given three months to live. But neither Robin nor Diana are the quitting kind, and neither takes this news lying down, so to speak. At first confined to the prison of the hospital bed next to an in-throat respirator, Robin, with the help of the tirelessly devoted Diana, discover that there is another way.

With the help of his own imagination, his born-in wealth and privilege, and the ingenuity and support of some friends, Robin constructs for himself a series of contraptions that permit him to explore the world beyond the hospital bed he had been prematurely condemned to by physicians and naysayers alike. A son is born to the couple, conceived luckily before disaster struck, and provides both of them an additional reason to fight for life, and for a plentiful one. Eventually, Robin and his wife become advocates for the disabled, for their reintegration into society, and for an end to the cruel practices of the medical community that rendered these individuals lepers.

This would not be the first story this year that is undoubtedly moving but whose cinematic portrayal I was not completely moved by. There is no doubt that Breathe will drive you tears, no matter how hardened your resolve is. It is admirable not only that Robin and Diana fought against such long odds out of a simple but powerful love for existence, but that their actions inspired millions. Breathe’s most effective device is that it makes you shed the pity you may naturally be inclined to feel for Robin and his plight, and admire his resilience and even envy the joy that he was able to achieve.

But the movie itself is not as inspiring as the tale it portends. Serkis is understandably cautious, going from one point to the next without much fanfare or mystery. Each episode follows the next cleanly and crisply. There is nothing wrong with that, but it makes for tedious enjoyment at times. This is not a bad movie by any means—it is a perfectly good film, and an extended scene that takes place in the Spanish countryside whence Robin and Diana are incredibly vacationing is particularly well constructed.

But the subject matter of Breathe gives it a head start on the competition. These are inherently likable and inspiring characters. There is no way that the audience walks out of there not shaken to their core. To make a great or grand film is a different matter. And in this post-epic movie world, sweeping shots, swelling music, and years passing by are not enough, at least not if all of those technical elements are of the old-fashioned type without more ingenuity. Breathe injects a breath of fresh air into the joy of living, but mostly chokes on its own ambitions elsewhere.

Grade: B-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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