In the almost three years since I saw The Theory of Everything, I've thought about it precisely twice. The first occasion was when Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar (Yes, that really did happen!), and the second time was last week, when I sat through a screening of Breathe. In fact, the cunning critic could easily dust off an old review, change a few names and details, and present it as a fair examination of this thoroughly predictable and anodyne effort from first-time director Andy Serkis. Breathe tells the story of Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio at the age of 28 and was subsequently paralysed from the neck down. Expected to live for no more than three months, Cavendish eventually died at the age of 64, having revolutionised widely held beliefs of how the severely disabled could live. An inspiring story, sure, but as a movie this thing is dramatically dead. William Nicholson's screenplay possesses no depth or complexity; it simply plods through the events of Cavendish's life as they happened, with any setbacks and complications being swiftly overcome with a stiff upper lip and a smile. Serkis initially seems comfortable with the swoony romantic style of the film's opening section, as Robin (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) and sweeps her off her feet, but he can't do anything with the inert drama that follows, or with characters who have no inner life. Foy is given a single note to play as the caring, unfussy wife – her own pain is never explored – while Garfield just keeps waggling his eyebrows and pulling faces to try and convey some kind of emotion. It's the first truly bad performance I've seen from this actor. What is the purpose of a film like this? There is no imagination in Breathe, no attempt to illuminate something greater or wrestle with the material's complications. It is just easy, safe, saccharine bullshit, and it deserves to be swiftly forgotten.
The one thing Breathe did achieve was to make me think rather more fondly of Stronger, which I had seen a few days earlier. This is another film about a man learning to live with his disability, another film built around a love story, another film dedicated to emotional uplift, but this one has a sense of authenticity and two lead actors capable of adding shades to the characters and their relationship. The protagonist here is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had both of his legs amputated below the knee after being caught up in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. He was waiting at the finish line to greet Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), his on-off girlfriend, who was nearing the end of the race when the explosion occurred. Rather than devoted lovers resolved to fight adversity together, these are two characters with a difficult past who find themselves thrown together by circumstances, and both Gyllenhaal and the particularly excellent Maslany give us a sense of their frustration, exhaustion and fear rather than resting on the characters' noble perseverance. Stronger is at its best when it focuses on this relationship and blocks out the surrounding noise, which largely consists of a lot of shouting, with the Bauman clan coming across as crude Boston stereotypes, permanently drinking, joking, yelling and fighting; Miranda Richardson's performance as Jeff's permanently soused mother is particularly embarrassing. As a piece of filmmaking, Stronger is fine. It was directed by the wayward David Gordon Green, who finds some striking angles on the drama and is aided by Sean Bobbitt's textured, atmospheric cinematography, but the film can't escape the confines of its prescribed narrative. While it admirably avoids sentimentality for many of its key scenes, Stronger gradually gives in to the inevitable, and its disappointing that the ending of the film also coming packaged with an uncomfortable streak of nationalism – the importance placed on flag-waving at sporting events sitting awkwardly after recent images in the US.
So how do you explore a man's life through cinema? Perhaps the trick is to simply use that man as a conduit to dig into something deeper and more expansive. Pat Collins' Song of Granite is ostensibly a film about Joe Heaney, the legendary Irish sean-nós singer who achieved fame in New York in the 1950s, and was said to have a repertoire of over 500 songs stored in his head. But what do we learn about Heaney from this film? We get a sense of the overall arc of his life through the three-act structure that depicts him at three ages of his life, but at the end of the film Heaney remains something of an enigma. Instead, Collins explores the society he grew up in, the changing times he lived through, and the nature of Irish song itself. This angle shouldn't be a surprise, as Collins' previous work has always been deeply concerned with questions of landscape, culture and history, and his previous feature – the excellent Silence – took a similarly unconventional, semi-fictional approach to its subject. What really took me aback with Song of Granite was the level of Collins' craft, which feels like a huge step forward from his previous work. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Richard Kendrick, the first third of the film consists of handsomely composed shots and unfolds at a steady rhythm, allowing us to adjust to the pace of life in 1930s Connemara. The middle section follows Heaney as he leaves Ireland to seek work in the UK and then achieves success in the US, with the handheld camerawork and more fragmented editing reflects his more rootless existence. The final segment of the film takes on a more haunted, contemplative quality, as the elderly Healey, settled into his life as an anonymous doorman in New York, reflects on the path he has travelled and the life he has lived. Song of Granite is not an easy film for audiences to connect with, as it offers little context or assistance for anyone unfamiliar with Healey or this milieu, but patient viewers willing to engage with the images and sound will find it richly rewarding. This is particularly true of the songs. Mostly performed in Gaelic, they are included in the film with no subtitles, forcing us to listen to their innate musicality, their life, their emotion. Song of Granite certainly isn't a standard film biopic. It gives us so much more than that.
Why make a film about Jean-Luc Godard? He has put so much of himself – his ideas, his passions, his politics, his lovers – into the films he has made over the past six decades, so I found it hard to see the point of a film like Redoubtable when I first heard about the project last year. Having now seen the film, I still have no idea why it exists. Michel Hazanavicius has adapted it from Un an après, the roman à clef written by Anne Wiazemsky about her relationship with Godard in the late 1960s, but he has cast Stacey Martin in the lead female role and he styles her to look more like Anna Karina or Chantal Goya than Wiazemsky throughout. Godard is played by Louis Garrel, who overdoes the lisp and plays the director as a bumbling, needy dope who can't go five minutes without having his glasses stepped on – this is genuinely a running gag. The film is set in 1967 and '68, as Godard made La Chinoise, became increasingly drawn towards political struggle, and gave up on conventional cinema techniques to begin a new phase of his career working with the Dziga Vertov group. (There is no mention of his fin de cinéma Weekend.) Hazanavicius has nothing of interest to say about Godard's art (people keep asking him why he doesn't make the early, funny ones anymore), but as a director most comfortable in pastiche mode he makes lazy references throughout. Domestic scenes are shot like Le mépris, a sex scene is filmed in the style of Une femme mariée, we see Wiazemsky crying in front of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but everything is shallow and trite. Redoubtable is a one-joke sketch stretched to feature length, with its most intriguing scene taking place right at the end, on the set of Le Vent d'est, but that scene just made me wish the whole film had been about the Dziga Vertov Group instead of wasting two hours on Godard being an asshole and Wiazemsky being a doormat. Godard himself reportedly dismissed this film as a “stupid, stupid idea.” He's not wrong.