Following blockbuster roles in Prometheus and Iron Man 3, Guy Pearce continues to impress with his quietly touching turn in Breathe In, an emotionally wrought and beautifully made film depicting family life at its worst.
Set in a privileged area of upstate New York, Breathe In opens on a picturesque image of a happy family having a portrait taken in their garden. Keith (Guy Pearce), wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) appear to be as happy as a family could be. However, all is not what it seems, as beneath this pleasant veneer lies a deep discontent within Keith, who is unhappy with his domestic life in the suburbs and the constant belittling of his efforts by Megan.
The skill of the film in these opening scenes is to construct the frictions and resentments between the married couple quickly but subtly. Keith, a concert cellist and former guitarist, is exceptionally repressed in his domestic role as father and provider. This is not helped by Megan’s deriding of his creative past, despite her own questionable and artless pursuits, such as a growing cookie jar collection. The paternal character’s emotional state is mirrored superbly by the mournful tone of his instrument, as well as Pearce’s understated performance.
When foreign exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) arrives, this is merely another example of Keith’s subjugation, as his objections fall on deaf ears. However, he is forced into becoming Sophie’s piano teacher at the local high school, but as time passes, it soon becomes clear that their relationship is one that could threaten the seemingly calm lives of the family.
With a film like this, where the eventual outcome seems inevitable, the difficulty comes in making the journey towards this end worth investment. After all, the idea of a married father in his forties beginning an affair with an 18 year old is not one that inspires sympathy. The difference here is that Breathe In has exceptional control over its tone. The seeds are planted early on when it is clear that Keith is deeply unhappy with his life: a teacher and not a musician, only a part time member of an orchestra, living in the suburbs and not the city, and perhaps worst of all, older than he ever realised. This makes the introduction of Sophie a new and exciting prospect, as despite his better judgement, Keith is drawn in by her ability to talk to him as an equal, when he is so accustomed to being talked down to by his wife.
Whilst this set up is awkward by nature, the film waits a long time before any physical contact occurs between the two leads. Instead, a steadily growing bond is first formed, not just between the two leads, but also Keith and his surroundings. John Guleserian’s beautiful cinematography perfectly illustrates the isolation of Keith’s suburban existence, with the location’s nature, the rustling of the leaves and sun beamed illumination, mixing perfectly with the mournful nuances of the soundtrack’s piano and cello.
Similarly, Drake Doremus’ close hand held direction provides as intimacy between his two main characters that allows their relationship to grow authentically. The lingering shots and wistful glances are more effective than over egged sexual scenes would be in conveying the emotional content of the film.
Reuniting with Doremus in the film is Felicity Jones, star of the director’s 2011 film Like Crazy, whose portrayal of Sophie is both assured and confident, complimenting Pearce’s quiet but affecting performance. In fact, Breathe In can boast fine performances from its entire cast, particularly Amy Ryan, who plays Megan with great care, never laying on her character’s abusive nature too thick.
There are faults within the film like any other, with the consistent talk of not being able to do what you want seeming a little simplistic in its efforts to afford the character’s an opportunity to express themselves. The situation itself is contextually enough to convey the difficulties of the freedom both want. There are also very deliberate moments of narrative clearly designed to move the film along, but these can be forgiven by the film’s effortless emotional content. Top performances and an almost tactile melancholic quality thanks to fine direction and soundtrack make Breathe In a film of real content and resonance.