Thursday, February 22, 2018

Breathe: Lifeline

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy in Breathe, directed by Andy Serkis. (Photo: David Bloomer)

Early in Breathe, there’s a moment that recalls The Sea Inside, Alejandro Amenábar’s superb triumph-of-the-spirit movie about the efforts of Ramón Sampedro (played by Javier Bardem), paralyzed and confined to his bed for years, to get the government of Catholic Spain to grant him permission to kill himself. Like Ramón, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) in Breathe – another real-life character stricken with paralysis, in his case from an attack of polio in the late 1950s – imagines himself getting up from his bed. But those mind escapes are a motif in The Sea Inside; in Breathe it happens just once, when Robin, in the depths of depression, has essentially retreated from life. Breathe is the anti-Sea Inside. It’s about how Robin’s wife Diana (Claire Foy), who refuses to allow him to give up on life, which would also mean giving up on her and their baby son Jonathan, engineers his liberation from the hospital where he’s being treated like a virtual corpse – and then, with Robin’s input and the aid of a delightfully imaginative and proactive group of friends, including the inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), devises a series of strategies to give Robin a mobile and fulfilling life. They progress from a ventilator set up in their bedroom in a wonderful old country house Diana buys on the cheap to a ventilator-fueled wheelchair to an automobile built to accommodate Andrew and his needs.

Written with wit and the best kind of emotional restraint by Willian Nicholson and directed by Andy Serkis, the brilliant actor who has made a career out of motion-capture roles like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, King Kong and Caesar in the latest Planet of the Apes trilogy, Breathe is utterly extraordinary. I’ve never seen another movie made in quite the same combination of style and tone: a blend of absurdism and realism rendered with transcendent joyousness. It’s as distinctly English as an Ealing comedy from the late forties or fifties, and the party scenes are like the ones in Evelyn Waugh’s novels (I’m thinking of Vile Bodies in particular) but without the doomy quality. It begins in the mode of a quirky romantic comedy, with Robin’s courtship of Diana and the early days of their marriage, when he’s a tea broker who takes her with him on business trips to Kenya. Garfield plays Robin like an English aristocrat of the old school, a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. type, so when the polio gets him and saps his will to live, we feel acutely the loss of that vivacious spirit. (He also loses his ability to speak, and though he regains it in a limited way, Garfield’s performance, which is astonishing, depends largely on what he can express in his face.) Fortunately the woman Robin has married has the same joie de vivre. When some of their friends come to visit them in Kenya before the polio lays him low, one of them tells a story about a group of men who willed themselves to die in dire circumstances; Diana’s response is “Well, I would have chosen to live,” and that statement, offered with absolute assertiveness, defines her. When Robin begs her in the hospital, “Let me die,” her answer is “Well, we can’t, can we?” And then, when she gets him away from that hospital and its insufferable, remote head doctor (Jonathan Hyde), who has a habit of addressing his patients in the first-person plural, “Well, I would have chosen to live” comes to define them both.

It’s hard to believe this is Serkis’s first foray as a director. It’s visually elegant – a reflection of a his collaboration with the cinematographer Robert Richardson. And Serkis pulls off masterful shifts in tone – or perhaps more accurately builds in tone, where he piles one on top of another, constructing breathtaking houses of cards. Take the scene where the new family puppy (one of those mutts that looks like it has one black eye, like Bill Sikes’s dog in Oliver!) knocks the respirator plug out of its socket when only Jonathan, now a toddler, is in the room and Diana discovers the problem just moments before Robin can expire – a terrifyingly suspenseful sequence with a comic punch line. Or the complicated episode, set in 1971, where, while the family is road-tripping through the Spanish countryside, the machine blows a fuse when they try to recharge it. Diana and her brother Bloggs Blacker place Robin under a parasol in the sun; Diana and Jonathan, who’s now about eleven, spell each other working the ventilator by hand while Bloggs goes off with a passing motorist to call Teddy Hall in England. While they’re waiting for him to arrive in his private plane, locals visit Robin, including a jolly priest who waxes eloquent on the subject of God’s sense of humor. (He’s a major improvement on the English minister we meet earlier in the hospital, when Robin is at his lowest ebb, who hauls out the desperate old saw about God making those he loves most endure the greatest trials. Robin invites him to come closer and then spits on him.) And there’s one sequence, where Robin and Clem Aitken visit a German facility for paralyzed patients in tubes like coffins for the still breathing, that is pure – inspired – sci-fi. (James Merifield is the production designer.)

Bloggs and his identical twin brother David are played by that resourceful actor Tom Hollander as if he were in a music-hall revue assembled by Noël Coward, and in Hollander gets to invoke the music hall in his best (and most touching) moment near the end of the picture. I recognized a number of other supporting players, like Downton Abbey’s indispensable Hugh Bonneville and Camilla Rutherford from another Julian Fellowes property, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, and David Wilmot from Joe Wright’s film of Anna Karenina. Diana Rigg has a lovely, ironic cameo as a no-nonsense dowager with bucks whom the Cavendishes and their friend Dr. Clement Aitken (Stephen Mangan), director of the Disability Research Foundation, approach to fund their initiative to build more mobile chairs like Robin’s so they can give others like him the chance to live fulfilling lives. (She agrees to back them because, she says, she can hardly say no to Robin while he’s wheezing away in front of her.) Others in the cast were new to me, like Tom Turner (in his first movie) as Robin and Diana’s friend Rory Stewart, whose tendency to self-pity is presented comically. Everyone knows Claire Foy, of course, from her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in The Crown; she’s great there and she’s great here too. As Diana she has a brightness, a sparkling quality. She looks a little like Bernadette Peters in some scenes from Pennies from Heaven, and her diminutive conviction reminds you of her as well. What her Diana shares with her Elizabeth is an irrepressible, very English stick-to-it-iveness. A side Foy reveals in Breathe that she didn’t get to show in The Crown is a sexy flirtatiousness – a gift for romantic comedy. This is one of the most inspiriting of all cinematic love stories, with “True Love,” the irresistible Cole Porter ballad from one of his last scores, for the 1956 movie High Society, as its theme song. (We hear it first when the Cavendishes dance to it after she tells him she’s pregnant, with the sun, a sinking golden orb, behind them.) The movie ends sadly, as it must; Robin survives for a couple of decades past the point the doctors predicted, and he has a fantastic life, but we know he can’t go on forever. The movie breaks your heart, but only after it’s presented his life as passionate and celebratory.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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