Breathe In: The danger of looking at Felicity Jones’s face

Drake Doremus's pale blue drama stars Guy Pearce as a middle-aged musician looking for a break from his humdrum life. When British exchange student Sophie Williams (Felicity Jones) arrives, he sees a second chance to regain his youth.

Within the first three minutes of Breathe In, the stage is set for Felicity Jones’s entrance. Keith Reynolds (played by a whiskery Guy Pearce) is a frustrated part-time musician, who, like many an artist before him, has ceded his impulsive and unorthodox life to a regimen of bills, children and regular pay. He is a music teacher who was never meant to be a music teacher. Or so he says. He sits in his office (a sort of shrine to his adolescent self) and groans over letters from his employer (“Hello educators!”) reminding him that a new school year is about to commence. He hides photographs of his old band in a stationary box on his desk.

Keith’s wife Megan, played by the magnificent Amy Ryan (also known as Officer Beadie from The Wire), is drearily co-opted into the list of trivialities that make Keith’s a life worth leaving. She collects and sells antique cookie jars. She also claims to enjoy driving her daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) from place to place. Lauren is a tall adolescent who likes hunky boys and swimming and not reading books, a populist contrast with her bohemian father. When Keith suggests the family might move to New York City, he is laughed at by his wife. What a boring old grown-up she is!

Into the humdrum steps Sophie Williams: a moody, adorably toothy ingénue from the UK staying with Keith and his family for a term, who just so happens to be a reluctant musical prodigy. When she joins Keith’s class he puts her on the spot, asking her to play something for her peers by way of introduction. She angrily bangs out one of Chopin’s warm-up routines, her thick black ponytail hanging over one shoulder as she grimaces at her teacher and host.

Initially indifferent, Keith’s interest is piqued. Here begins a series of will-they-won’t-they moments characterised by longing glances, pregnant silences and slow, staccato dialogue, improvised by the actors according to the method preferred by director Drake Doremus (who directed Jones in 2011 drama Like Crazy). The film, for all its Lolita-esque potential, is remarkably chaste. The pair’s magnetism is driven less by lust than the will to escape everything they see as holding them back. It is never exactly clear who is leading and who is being led.

In the meantime, Keith’s daughter Lauren is busy doing everything that Sophie is just too brooding and aloof to bother with: she is out getting drunk, being jealous and showing the kinds of vulnerabilities that would be expected of someone her age. When we are not being seduced by the handsomeness of Pearce and Jones, the gorgeous pale blue photography, lush interiors and deep, orchestral score (Keith is a cellist), it is the trials of Lauren and her mother Megan with whom we are most able to identify.

But just look at that face. Sophie’s mum, we learn, died when she was a child. She was raised by her aunt and pianist uncle, the latter having recently passed away - facts which might explain both the character’s talent and her dismissive behaviour – that is if she’s telling the truth.

Words pass between Keith and Sophie about “the rules” that keep them from doing what they want - rules which they could ignore, but not without paying for it (at least in the moral universe of US indie cinema). The narrative denouement attempts to compensate for the lingering melancholy by providing an almighty bang, though this dramatic surge isn’t necessarily the antidote required. For all the respect shown to Jones throughout the film (one pool-side scene aside), the simple premise of a middle-aged man constantly staring at a girl the same age as his daughter might have been unforgivable, if not for the fact that by looking at her face he is forced to see his own.

Breathe In is out now.

Breathe In is a film of looking and longing. Photograph: Indian Paintbrush.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories