Directed by: Drake Doremus. Starring: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis, Kyle MacLachlan
Director Drake Doremus reunites with the star of his film Like Crazy, Felicity Jones, to deliver another muted, melancholic portrait of transatlantic love.
Breathe In seems like the slightly more mature, cynical successor to the wide-eyed naiveté of Like Crazy, yet similarly explores obstacles to a burgeoning relationship. This time Jones takes on the role of Sophie, a British exchange student who shifts the dynamic of her American host family. Guy Pearce is the musically-gifted, but creatively-stifled husband, increasingly suffocated by the dreary sameness of suburban family life (ringing American Beauty bells), whilst Amy Ryan plays the cookie-cutter, cookie-jar-collecting wife who yearns for a bigger house and all the charming perks of stability.
A softly spoken old soul, Sophie comes to America expecting the excitement and buzz of New York City. Instead she finds herself embroiled in high-school drama, repressed desire and middle-class, middle-aged anxieties. Over dinner-time conversation and awkward family occasions, Sophie finds herself drawn to cellist and music teacher Keith, whilst she reluctantly wows him with her performance of a Chopin piece in his class. From the moment Sophie enters the house, and Keith rifles curiously and somewhat intrusively through her luggage, to her doleful eyes watching his participation in the local orchestra, the sexual tension is rife.
However, Doremus prefers to unfurl and simmer, rather than erupt. Breathe In thrives on moments of emotional undercurrent and dormant artistic expression.
The characters tread carefully around one another. Suspicions and resentment brews, as daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) has her nose pushed out of joint by Sophie’s apparent popularity with the men in her life and Ryan’s Megan senses her husband’s weakness. Where the film succeeds is in not overplaying or over-complicating these moments. In one of its final scenes, Megan just shoots a withering stare to a distraught Sophie. Words are scarcely needed. Indeed the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is never truer than during a family photo, where Keith, Megan and Lauren paste on their smiles of familial happiness amid the betrayal and discontent.
And yet with each tender caress or desiring stare, I couldn’t decide whether the film felt subdued and subtle, or just plain smug. During a torrential downpour, with senses and emotions running high, Keith and Sophie interlace fingers over piano-playing. Chords and keys become the tapestry through which their affair is woven and though it makes for a sensual unravelling of romance, rather than an explosive or rushed bluster to the bedroom, there were times when it all got a bit too dour. Combined with the bleak, blueish-green colour palette and melodramatic musical score, unlike the Chopin piece, it all felt over-composed. Too orchestrated to feel natural. Besides Sophie and Keith, who are seemingly connected by underlying performance anxiety, the characters are hastily and stereotypically fleshed out. Lauren’s jealously is a subplot kept very much to the periphery, whilst Megan is alternatively dismissive or dubious throughout the entire runtime. The performances themselves are incredibly naturalistic and Jones and Pearce do well (as she does equally in The Invisible Woman) to convince us of their chemistry and attraction, despite the age gap. However, the contrivance eventually outweighs the sense of restraint and delicacy.
Beneath the brooding tension of illicit romance and moments, or glances stolen, the narrative is smothered by a been-there, done-that familiarity. Keith and Sophie seek refuge from expectation and onlookers by escaping to a local lake, wherein amongst the foliage and nature, they share secrets, hopes and truths. It’s part heart rendering, part-overwhelming twee. And then it goes full-scale melodrama when the one person who can’t find out, stumbles into the same neck of the woods. What are the chances?! In a Doremus film, incredibly, incredibly high.
I wanted to like Breathe In a lot. Jones and Pearce carry the somewhat flawed narrative with a sensitivity and poignancy, so that, almost immorally, you do genuinely want this fledgling couple to find a way to make it work. But I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, Doremus seems to be a glass half-empty kind of director…
Verdict: A patchy fifth-feature from Doremus. For all its sensuous slow-burning and talented acting, one can’t help but feel it has a lot in common with the wasted potential of its protagonist.