Sunday, December 03, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


What kind of art do we need right now? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the English and Irish playwright (The Pillowman) turned filmmaker. Whether or not McDonagh intended his film to be of this moment, Three Billboards arrives in a year when the prejudices of established power structures and the behavior of police and other civil institutions are at the forefront of cultural conversation in America. McDonagh addresses those subjects with the same bitten-off, hard-won humor and spurts of violence that will seem familiar to those who know his work. Three Billboards sees an America roiling with tension and bitterness over differences in race and class, and also makes room for characters facing more existential problems in their own lives. One such character is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who when we meet her is a few months past the rape and murder of her daughter Angela. No arrests have been made, so one day Mildred - using money from the sale of her ex-husband's tractor - rents three billboards to post a message calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress on the case. Willoughby is a beloved figure in Ebbing, and the billboards are perceived as an attack on the very goodness of the town itself. Mildred, who seems to have few interactions with people other than her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is dismissed as a woman driven mad by loss.


Three Billboards wants to be many things, but it isn't especially interested in being a mystery. Willoughby is sincere in his sympathy for Mildred and in his desire to solve the case, but all leads have run cold and there is no new evidence coming in. McDonagh is more interested in observing the town's underlying civic order and pointing out how close it is to slipping away. Willoughby can pacify Mildred - in the moment - while also controlling the racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), but we find out in an early scene that the Chief has been diagnosed with cancer and that the prognosis isn't good. As Willoughby's energy fades the rest of Ebbing becomes more and more chaotic. All of this would be much more trenchant if McDonagh weren't enjoying himself so much. To answer the question I put at the beginning of this review, a kind of art that feels less necessary these days involves Europeans broadly characterizing American mores. McDonagh's natural theatricality makes Three Billboards feel like a broad swipe at American culture from someone who doesn't really want to get too close to it. McDonagh isn't interested in social realism, the Ebbing of this film never feels very much like a real place. Key locations like the police station and the office where Mildred rents the billboards from a nervous young man (Caleb Landry Jones) are across the street from each other, creating a convenient stage for two of the film's most violent scenes. Much attention is paid to shots of blood, such as in Mildred's altercation with a dentist and (in a moment that feels very false) Willoughby yanking out his Iv in the hospital. McDonagh lingers on a shot of Harrelson's blood on a hospital wall as if to say that we're all one bad doctor's visit away from the same fate.


Frances McDormand is as much of a spitfire as one might expect in Three Billboards, never compromising on Mildred's anger while also finding moments of dark humor. A flashback points out that Mildred maybe wasn't such a great parent, and McDormand plays Mildred's confrontations with her ex-husband (John Hawkes) with just the right level of resentment and fear. A less successful subplot involves Mildred crossing paths with a character played by Peter Dinklage, and McDonagh isn't shy about people using the word "midget". Neither McDormand nor Dinklage really look like they know what their scenes should be. The best casting decision McDonagh made though was Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby. Harrelson gets to play a wonderful warmth with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and children while projecting a kind of basic American competence on the job. (Abbie Cornish is actually a distraction as Willoughby's wife, she forgoes an American accent and I didn't believe Willoughby would have fallen for her.) But McDonagh wants to place heavy symbolic weight on what happens to Willoughby, and it's more than the film can bear. In its second half Three Billboards becomes more interested in Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon, and McDonagh's broad take on the character as a blight on the American grain shifts the film into an almost operatic gear of social satire. Dixon is a showy role and Rockwell's performance matches the film tonally, but McDonagh is only nominally interested in the character's possible redemption. Willoughby has been reduced to a guiding spirit at this point, giving everyone instructions, and while he offers Dixon some hope the end of the film suggests that violence is Dixon's only way of really relating to others. The character's racism is situational - offhand references to torture and an insertion of the N-word - and the script doesn't take the time to show how Dixon's racial attitudes and relative power might do more insidious work upon the lives of Ebbing's residents of color. Of whom there appear to be about four. Martin McDonagh is more interested as a writer in the havoc people can wreak than in the way that individuals rub up against institutions, and it's that misplaced emphasis that reduces Three Billboards to well-acted curiosity.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Novitiate/Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold


Novitiate is set in the 1960's, at a time when the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II") was reforming and liberalizing the practices of the Catholic Church. Vatican II put Catholics on either side of a divide, depending on one's views. The changes involving saying Mass in vernacular languages and acknowledging the beliefs of non-Catholics either seemed like a welcome engagement with modernity or an unforgivable dilution of the Church's authority. Maggie Betts, here writing and directing her first feature, puts her characters right in front of the coming change and lets them figure out who they want to be in a post-Vatican II world. Cathleen (introduced as a child and played as a young woman by Margaret Qualley) discovers the Church as a girl while in the company of her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen's father is barely a presence in her life, and to Nora's surprise she finds great comfort in the nuns like Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell) who are teachers at her new school. A teenaged Cathleen proclaims her desire to become a nun, and the rest of Novitiate takes place at the convent where Cathleen becomes a postulant under the supervision of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

In Betts's script, becoming a nun is an end in itself. Cathleen and her fellow postulants refer to themselves as being "in love" with God, and Betts calls out the bridal imagery in the scene where the girls finish their time as postulants and enter their novitiate. The film doesn't place the idea of being a nun in any context, and it isn't clear why Cathleen is attracted to the possibility of life inside the convent more than the idea of serving as a teacher like Sister Margaret. Maybe that's why even though Margaret Qualley so thoroughly commits to the idea of Cathleen as swooning and God-struck, her performance feels so stifled. It's hard to express what Cathleen and the girls are striving towards in dramatic terms, so Betts keeps breaking away from the postulants to comment on Church politics. Melissa Leo plays Reverend Mother as a fountain of barely suppressed rage, first at the perceived insubordination of the young teacher Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron, who gets some Malick-style voice over that the film then forgets about) and then at the Archbishop (Denis O'Hare) who mansplains Vatican II to her. Again there's a lack of context here. Reverend Mother tells the postulants that the Church has given her her "work", but we never see the character do anything but find other people inadequate. It's in the scene with the Archbishop - O'Hare nails the character's sanctimony - that I think Novitiate gets confused about what it's doing. Reverend Mother clearly finds many of the Vatican II changes too liberal, and in fact she hasn't even told the other nuns about them. But when confronted by the Archbishop she is also angry that women weren't included in the Vatican's process.  That thing you did that I don't like? It's also sexist. If the end titles of Novitiate are to be believed, we have actually been watching a film about the Catholic Church's betrayal of nuns. As Cathleen and the others prepare for another set of vows they notice the convent seems emptier, and we're told that the mid-1960's was a time of nuns' departure from the Church at historic levels. If we're to take the scene in which Reverend Mother tells the older nuns - who are never individualized - as as a dramatization of Betts's views on Vatican II, then Novitiate reads as an unhappy and backward-looking film. Cathleen and her sisters deserved better.










The actor Griffin Dunne has made a documentary about his aunt Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist probably best known now for her writings on grief. The film Lady Bird opens with an acerbic Didion quote about life in her hometown of Sacramento, and fortunately Dunne was able to put more of Didion's sensibility on screen with an extended interview. Though readers may be most familiar with Didion's book about her late husband John Gregory Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking), Didion is no sentimentalist and has a journalist's eye for the telling detail. Didion describes a famous moment - encountering a child whose mother had given her LSD - depicted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as "gold", and it's this detachment that makes it clear at once why Didion is a great writer and what it must have been like to live with her in the 1970's. Dunne skillfully weaves together news clips and the testimonials of colleagues (Calvin Trillin, Hilton Als), but the interview with Didion is the film's center. Worn by time and opened up by loss, Didion - now 82 - is lively but clearly preoccupied by work already done as a writer, wife, and mother. (Didion's adopted daughter Quintana died in 2005.) The greatest achievement of The Center Will Not Hold is to make the woman shown receiving a medal from President Obama seem beautifully and honestly human.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lady Bird


Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is a startlingly assured directorial debut, and it certainly deserves a place in the conversation about the best American films of 2017. Gerwig, who also wrote the script, has made a film that succeeds in both being a first-rate coming of age comedy and also a moving character piece about a parent and a child coming to understand each other. Sacramento, 2002: Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who has dubbed herself "Lady Bird", is entering her senior year at a private Catholic girls school. Lady Bird is smart but an underachiever in the classic mode, more likely to declare her plans to go to college somewhere in the East where "writers live in the woods" than to actually make a plan to achieve that goal. When Lady Bird isn't vexing her mother Marion (an excellent Laurie Metcalf) by jumping out of moving cars she is hanging out with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and - on a whim - auditioning for the Sondheim musical that her school is producing with the boys from the neighboring school. Lady Bird is an episodic film, one that conveys the late teenage feeling of moments piling up without resorting to sentiment or cliche. The plot unfolds over Lady Bird's senior year, one in which she meets a boy she loves and then entertains the possibility of someone new. But to dwell on the story would be to reduce Lady Bird to the sum of its events. This is very much a movie about self-discovery. Saoirse Ronan is capable of great poise as an actor (Brooklyn, Atonement), but she is warm and open here even in the scenes where she's fighting with her mother. Those fights reveal just how much each woman needs the other to understand her, and they also serve as Lady Bird's unsentimental education in adult problems. Lady Bird's parents are dogged by money worries - Tracy Letts is Lady Bird's loving but sad father - and Lady Bird's first reaction is to gravitate towards wealthier classmates like Danny (Lucas Hedges) or the popular Jenna (Odeya Rush). As in any teenage movie things don't turn out as planned, and Lady Bird is confronted with her parents' problems as the possibility of college in the East becomes more real and her relationship with Howard Zinn reading rich kid Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) begins to slip away.

With a sharp script and actors as good as Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who has a stunner of a long take as Lady Bird prepares to leave for college, Lady Bird could have been above average even with less confident direction. But what a pleasure to see how cinematic a naturalistic film about people talking can be. The script clues you into what it's doing with a pair of scenes that Gerwig places next to each other. Danny breaks down as he confesses a secret to Lady Bird, who can only offer comfort in return. Gerwig then cuts to a conversation between Marion, a psychiatric nurse, and Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Father Leviatch is the beloved drama teacher who led the school production of Merrily We Roll Along but has left without explanation before the spring production of The Tempest. (He is replaced by the football coach.) In just a few lines, Gerwig establishes that Father Leviatch is suffering from a severe depression and that she intuitively understands how to help him. This scene isn't necessary for the plot - we never see Leviatch again - but it connects Marion to Lady Bird in ways that neither character will ever speak of. Both women are full of a great love, but sometimes their expectations of this world don't match their reality. Gerwig later treats this idea of disappointment with some playfulness, in a scene where Marion and Lady Bird attend open houses together. Lady Bird is learning to see all kinds of people for who they are over her senior year, from her parents to loyal Julie to self-absorbed Kyle. But Gerwig reserves the films most beautiful sequence for Lady Bird and Marion. As college freshman Lady Bird speaks to her family's voice mail, Gerwig cuts between moving parallel shots of Marion and Lady Bird that serve as a closing  statement: We are always opening the gifts others have given us. Lady Bird is gorgeous.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League


The Wikipedia entry detailing the production history of Justice League reads like a Russian novel, one full of competing visions of the future and frequently dashed hopes. Remember when George Miller, late of Mad Max: Fury Road was supposed to direct? Or when someone named D.J. Cotrona was to play Superman? The Justice League we have now received is of course supposed to be the sort of quarter pole of the "D.C. Extended Universe", the film meant to consolidate earlier success and point to characters and films yet to come. The only problem with that narrative is the truth: Critics and a large chunk of the audience have rejected the D.C. films (other than Wonder Woman) as bloated and self-serious, and this final version of Justice League is the product of well-reported reshoots and rewrites by Joss Whedon after credited director Zack Snyder stepped away due to a family tragedy. So, what do we have?

Justice League is a film that is eager to please. It wants you to know - Chris Terrio and Whedon share writing credit - that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are good people and very engaged with their superheroic responsibilities. Also, being some sort of oceanic royalty is awesome, man. Jason Momoa as Aquaman speaks and behaves as if he's an enforcer in a 1990's action movie who really digs surfing on the weekends. There is also a character named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who due to a lab accident has become Cyborg and functions in the film as a sort of half-human USB drive. Every time the good guys need information or some technological task performed, Victor (who is acquiring power as the film continues) has the interface necessary to move the plot forward. Finally, Ezra Miller plays Barry Allen, a.k.a The Flash. Miller is the comic relief of Justice League, playing Barry as a geek who's thrilled to discover what his powers can be used for. It's an appealing performance, and the only one other than Gadot's that I would want to watch carry a film on its own. Barry's speed also helps set the visual template for the film, and probably for future D.C. projects as well. When The Flash accelerates everything else slows down, and it looks as if he's running through a color-saturated poster or an image from a video game. There is some visual comedy with the character's speed, but not too much. Coming in at just under two hours, Justice League isn't messing around. While we're on the subject of video games, the copious use of visual effects signals that D.C. films are taking a turn away from the Urban Gloom Hauteur of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Quite a bit of Justice League looks as though it would be best enjoyed on an Xbox, especially the scenes where our heroes do battle with Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). These scenes take place only in what I'll call something other than our physical reality, but that doesn't matter because even after spending over two hundred million dollars on this film the best that the studio could do was have iconic characters do battle against a World of Warcraft extra. Steppenwolf's plan is explained at length and involves appearances by Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta and Mera (Amber Heard), who is either Aquaman's love interest or his assistant. (I look forward to Mera being an underwritten character in a future Aquaman film). If Steppenwolf can unite three all-powerful boxes then the world will essentially turn into something that looks like Mordor before gentrification, though it isn't clear if humanity would survive or if hard currency would surrender to Bitcoin.

If Justice League points to a new house visual style for D.C., well then at least they commit to it. What's less acceptable is how rushed and scattershot the film feels, more like a notebook of ideas than a finished script. The Steppenwolf plot feels so inconsequential because it's balanced with the possible return of Superman (Henry Cavill) from the fate he suffered at the end of Batman v Superman. Bruce and the others need Superman's help to defeat Steppenwolf and also to make more films. I actually don't hate Justice League, it's lighter than other D.C. films and not too long, but there's a feeling of putting pieces in place that pervades the whole enterprise. Franchise fatigue isn't a new complaint, but the D.C. films in particular give off an air of every choice being made so others can be made down the line. Do you think we won't see those boxes again? There is even a hint that Bruce Wayne may be looking to pass off the Bat gear to someone younger. If D.C. is smart they will take a lesson from Wonder Woman and open up their "Universe" to new storytellers and new characters that aren't burdened by so much expectation. I'm looking forward to that Wonder Twins film.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


Characters are together in a confined space. They don't know each other. A murder occurs. Who did it and what does it mean? No, I'm not describing a new entry in the Saw franchise but rather Kenneth Branagh's new film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh having a great time) is last-minute addition to the passenger list for a journey across Europe when a murder and an avalanche throw the travelers into confusion. Poirot's fellow passengers include an unpleasant art dealer (Johnny Depp in an out-of-tune performance), a governess (Daisy Ridley), and a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in search of a husband. Poirot is prevailed upon to solve the case, and what else is a detective to do? The film is essentially a series of confrontations, with Poirot questioning the passengers and slowly finding out that their connections to the murder victim are more complex than they first appeared. Each scene reveals a new layer to the mystery, though the identity of two passengers traveling on diplomatic visas (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) gets buried under a layer of too-fast exposition. Branagh is winningly haughty and vain as Poirot and I could have watched more of him fussing over the shape of his breakfast egg, but he is also an actor capable of projecting great intelligence and in Poirot's interactions with the passengers there's little doubt that he will come out ahead. I wish that Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green, could have found a way to better integrate a large amount of exposition into the main story. Changing the structure of the plot might offend Christie purists, but much depends on things that occurred before the train journey starts and spending some time outside the train would have avoided several scenes that function as information dumps. It also would have meant that actors like Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz would have had a bit more to do, and the film would have felt less like an echo chamber for Branagh's performance.

Other than Depp's, the one performance that didn't work for me was Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. I think Branagh and Green are actually combining two characters here, but in any case while of course there's nothing wrong with changing the race of a character the film then goes out of its way to call attention to Arbuthnot's race for plot purposes. That isn't Odom's fault, but he's not convincing as a British person or as someone involved in a romance that turns into a late revelation. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, or Judi Dench. Branagh wants this story to ask questions about the nature of justice, but in a film so constructed around one star performance the moral issues don't resonate. Murder on the Orient Express is an adequate Sunday afternoon diversion but it is overstuffed and - even running under two hours - a little clunky. A talented cast can't quite save this from feeling like a film that didn't really need to exist. Kenneth Branagh's next case shouldn't be quite so cold.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Quick referral

I'd meant to do this before but please check out BHS62, a new blog written by my father Stanley Crowe. Dad's most recent post is a review of the Mike Leigh film Meantime (available on Criterion), and he's writing on everything from classical music to current events.

Thor: Ragnarok



There is something bracing about Thor: Ragnarok, something fresh and surprising about how much fun a superhero franchise film can be when it isn't too weighted down with metaphor or psychology. Much of the credit for the pleasures of the third Thor film - an installment that no one was asking for - goes to director Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who broke out with this and who in addition to directing turns in a funny performance as an ambulatory pile of rocks named Korg. Waititi has gotten around the challenge of upping the stakes from previous films by refusing to do so here. The script for Thor: Ragnarok written by three of the Marvel house team reflects the franchise back on itself by refusing to invent reasons for what the characters do to matter. Waititi fills the screen up with heavily stylized imagery, and the comedic skills of the actors do the rest. The unusual choices are welcome but they also make this third (Final?) Thor film feel like a curiosity, one that barely connects to the larger Marvel project. I can't recall a film that I've enjoyed as much as Thor: Ragnarok while being less emotionally engaged.

We begin with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in captivity, narrating to himself and to us. I wanted the narration to run throughout the film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off style, but soon enough we get a conversation between Thor and a demon (voiced by Clancy Brown) about the impending fall of Asgard that is really just background for a gag about Thor on a spinning chain. When Thor finally makes it back home, he finds brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) enjoying himself in ways that are too funny to spoil. The existential threat to Asgard comes in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death and sister of Thor and Loki. Hela's powers have become too strong for Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to control, and she has returned from banishment to claim what is hers. Cate Blanchett as Hela is the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok, and her dry performance is both success in itself and a comment on the tropes of comic book film villains. Hela only wants power, so there is no need for exposition about her plans. (The scene where the villain explains themselves in a film like this is what I call the "Harness the power of the Sun" moment.) The deliberate and very funny boredom of Blanchett's line readings is just the vinegar Waititi needs when he cuts away from Thor and Loki, who have become stranded on a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, speaking of line readings). The section of the film involving Thor being forced into gladiatorial combat against Hulk (Mark Ruffalo again makes for a neurotic Bruce Banner) is funny but also feels the most functional, as if Waititi and the writers realized they had to get all of the key characters moving towards the next Avengers film. Tessa Thompson adds welcome energy as a boozy Valkyrie, first seen drunkenly falling off her spaceship and eventually appealed to in Thor's plans to save Asgard. Thompson has had one of the oddest careers in current movies, with her first major film credit in a Tyler Perry film no one remembers (For Colored Girls) and her breakthrough coming in another sequel that no one was asking for (Creed). Here Thompson is asked to be alternately funny and a badass, and her performance promises her a steady income in Marvel films to come.

There is, of course, a battle which brings all of the major players together as well as Asgard's gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba), a knight who has fallen under Hela's spell (Karl Urban), and a large group of Asgardian citizens. As much fun as it was getting to this point, why does none of this feel like it matters? Thor: Ragnarok is in its way a sort of glass-fronted box of a film, one that's a pleasure to look at but too insular to linger. (Mark Ruffalo as Banner is as close as we get to a character who isn't an alien or a god.) I didn't know how much I needed a superhero film that contains sequences that look like the cover of a Yes album, or one in which Cate Blanchett is costumed like the Mistress at a Sierra Club dungeon. I'm arguing against myself here, because the heavy-handedness of most films in the genre can feel stultifying. But as pleasurable as Waititi's aesthetics are, they don't point to a new way forward. (I could be proven wrong if Ryan Coogler's Black Panther hits big next year.) Thor: Ragnarok ends with our heroes in space Battlestar Galactica-style. They're headed to Earth, where Avengers: Infinity War comes out in 2018. I'm pretty sure they'll make the release date.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Breathe


Breathe is the fact-based story of Robin Cavendish, a British man who contracted polio in Kenya in the late 1950's and became an advocate for Britain's disabled community until his death in 1994. The early scenes of William Nicholson's screenplay show Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) wooing Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) at a cricket match and whisking her off to Africa, where he worked as a tea broker. Director Andy Serkis - the motion-capture acting legend directs here for the first time - moves through this part of the story quickly, and at first I was afraid that Breathe was going to be a sort of sturdy, chin-up melodrama with scene after scene of Cavendish overcoming obstacles. We don't even really learn that much about Cavendish in these scenes. One of his colleagues delivers a speech early on about "willpower", but when Cavendish is stricken with polio and new mother Diana must get him to back to England all we really know about Cavendish is that he loves his wife and is being played by our greatest living ex-Spider Man. Breathe falls squarely into the "Disabled Person Beats the Odds" genre, but it is separated from the pack by two soulful lead performances and a sense of activism about disabled lives. (Cavendish's son Jonathan produced Breathe.) Nicholson's script is always making us think about the way we see people with severe disabilities, from the scenes in which an officious doctor (Jonathan Hyde) is dismissing Diana's efforts to bring Robin home to a funnier moment at a party where Robin's friend laments about his love life to a paralyzed man connected to a respirator. Robin gains freedom of movement thanks to a wheelchair invented by another friend (Hugh Bonneville), and in its second half Breathe becomes more strident about the way we don't want to look at others who make us uncomfortable. When Robin visits a German hospital the disabled patients he sees are just heads protruding from respirators like in a sci-fi nightmare. It's the film's most striking visual moment and it inspires Robin's speech to a medical conference about not viewing the disabled as prisoners. Garfield delivers the monologue wonderfully, and he's as angry or charming or loving by turns as the screenplay requires. The first moment where a newly at-home Robin almost dies is chilling in its ordinariness, and Garfield has a stunning bit of acting as a man maybe breathing his last. Yet I wish I had a better sense of the man whose life I was watching unfold. Serkis isn't interested in what initially connects Robin and Diana, he's more engaged with how Robin functions within the story as an avatar for the disabled. While Serkis and Nicholson don't pile on the sentiment, the moment where Robin asks his family to let him go shouldn't feel quite as schematic as it does. To say that Claire Foy as Diana fares better is of course to play into what Breathe is doing, since her character isn't bound by the same physical limitations as Garfield's. Andrew Garfield is already an Oscar-nominated star and Foy deserves to be. Her Diana is terrifically warm, but Foy makes her more than just an Earth Mother. Foy locates very specific wells of anger and fear in Diana when things look at their worst, and if you've seen The Crown you know how indomitable she can be. Yet the film lets her down somewhat as well, because Foy doesn't get many scenes where Diana isn't required to respond to Robin's needs at that precise moment. Breathe doesn't bother with explaining either Robin or Diana's family or financial situations. Diana has twin brothers both played by Tom Hollander - wouldn't it be wild if Serkis was actually doing a motion capture performance as one of the Hollanders - who suggest a sort of shabbily comfortable background, but besides a couple of tossed off lines no one in Breathe ever worries about the cost of Robin's care. Andy Serkis shoots Breathe like a handsome TV film. He's careful to call attention to the beauty of a sunset or a country view as Robin observes them, and there are a few POV angles from Robin's bed. But Breathe is an actor's show. When I saw the trailer I thought that Breathe looked like a too-obvious Oscar grab. In fact it is better than that thanks to its two leads, whose work transcends a film that is very personal but not quite human enough.