What it's about:
The true story of Robin Cavendish, an upper class Englishman whose blessed life in the early 20th century takes a turn to the tragic as a case of polio leaves him entirely paralysed from the neck down. The initial despair of his new existence threatens to overwhelm him, but with the steadfast support of his loving wife, Diana, Robin finds a new lease on life when his inventor friend finds a way for him to live outside of the hospital and thereby outlive his initial prognosis of only a few months by many, many years.
What we thought:
If you thought that the first film to be directed by performance-capture king, Andy Serkis, would be a special-effects-filled extravaganza, you would be right. Unfortunately, because his “live action” take on the Jungle Book would have collided head-on with John Favreau's already perfectly passable take on the same material, his explosive début - now simply called Mowgli - has been delayed to, as it stands, later this year.
Fortunately, what we get instead is a lovely little true-life drama (almost “dramedy”) that could hardly be further away from the sort of films with which Serkis is usually associated and you could easily see it as being something of a – sorry – breather for Serkis after presumably spending an obscene amount of time putting together that other-other-other talking animals movie. Mowgli may well turn out to be a masterpiece but even if it doesn't, we'll at least always have Breathe.
Andrew Garfield once again impresses as Robin Cavendish, just about transcending the inevitable Oscar-baiting worthiness of such a role but it's the more subtle performance of Claire Foy as Diana that provides the emotional undertow of the film. This has become something of a trend recently with the wives of famous figures all but stealing the show in their biopics thanks both to a shift in writing trends and a simply sterling generation of actresses more than rising to the occasion.
Another crucial way that the film sidesteps becoming just another biopic/ true-life drama about someone overcoming a horrible disease is the copious amount of often dry humour injected into even the film's most intense sequences. William Nicholson, a veteran screenwriter of major, if often quite heavy films like Les Miserables, Nell, Sarafina and Gladiator, brings an impressively light touch to his screenplay here, which is easily matched by a cast who are equally at home with comedy and drama.
Neither Nicholson nor Serkis entirely circumvent the inevitable clichés that come with this kind of film – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly this certainly isn't – but the film's sense of humour and sharp wit give it a freshness that even the already incredible true-life story being told probably wouldn't provide alone.
And it is a remarkable story about quite remarkable people that isn't just about turning a personal struggle into a personal triumph but is about the way that Robin and Diana – who are, after all, a pair of upper-class 'toffs' - become the champions for a group of people who were particularly neglected in their day. Such a story could, however, easily be mawkish or sanctimonious but with its near-perfect balance of humour (be it self-deprecating, dry, even goofy) and honest emotionalism, it's both far more entertaining and more earned in its sentimentality than it very easily could have been. Even a bit of emotional speechifying feels earned, rather than cheap.
As for Serkis' direction, he shows a sure hand here. This is not the sort of film on which any but the most distinctive of stylists would be able to show their directorial skills but if a sense of balance, pacing and confidence are what low-key biopics are made of then he more than acquits himself here. Mowgli may well turn out to be a better, bigger showcase for Serkis as a director but this is an impressive début nonetheless.