You know the apocalypse is only going to get worse when you’re British and your mate says “oh and we’ve run out of beer”.
Turns out the world ends not with a bang but with a young man’s whimper, that the stash of Fosters is all gone. In Britain, anyway. Elsewhere it’s more urgent and more violent, as strange toxic clouds drift across the sky and the only official advice is “stay calm and breathe easy”. No one knows if it’s climate change, nuclear weapons, the Second Coming or aliens, but the elite are content to save only themselves.
Meanwhile some people are loving the drama, some are loving the drinking time, others are racing for their lives, but from what? The cloud? Other people? They’re not sure and neither are we. There are shades of Interstellar with a toxic earth possibly creating its own destruction as children cough and weaken. And its effects seem to vary, sending some people mad.
My favourite part of apocalyptic films is the glimpses of society breaking down with spinning newspaper headlines, abandoned cars on motorways, and fake news programmes. Breathe Easy is actually all about the breakdown, and the reactions. A newsreader (Zoe Cunningham, always watchable) goes from smart and in control to discussing which classic novel to use as loo paper while sporting a tiara on TV as society collapses. Cities around the world bring in roadblocks and curfews. The streets are deserted but for looters, a few lost souls, and the wail of ambulances.
Breathe Easy is a collaborative film made by over 20 directors in 10 countries. Although this means it is uneven in tone and style (very uneven in many ways), it also means there’s diversity of race and language – and we see how these countries are coping rather than how we think they might be coping. It’s interesting how different directors respond to the challenge. Some of the European segments (Germany and the UK) are more jokey, even satirical – though there is some graphic violence, the overall tone is of laughing and drinking through the end of days. For some the apocalypse looks quite fun, apart from the American eating spaghetti hoops out of a can (I have some boundaries and that to me is the ultimate sign of impending doom, along with Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick splitting up).
But other segments are more serious, possibly because in real life the people we are following would be more vulnerable, because they are young, or black, or poor. They don’t have the luxury of worrying about running out of beer, or drooling over someone’s mum who looks like Jet from Gladiators, before the end is finally nigh.
One of the most interesting segments is set near Capetown – where a black couple Megan (Megan Alexander) and Calvin (Calvyn Grandling), trying to escape the city, turn out not to be a couple at all. He’s carkjacked her to escape. Their growing relationship is touching and humorous and not exploitative (there’s no hint of victim falling in love with attacker, and she retains control as it turns out he can’t drive). Later near Pretoria women and girls dance and sing in pristine white and cobalt blue, praying to god, begging for an answer from their ancestors, as children hang out washing or simply play.
We also jump in and out of a subtitled story set in Bulgaria, where teenagers are fleeing the city to get to the Gathering Stations, and young Raya (Yanitsa Halacheva) searches for her brother. In LA people are rioting while a black couple expecting a baby realise the end is coming and pray with their neighbour in their kitchen. Two bright and clever little Australian girls (Yasmin and Paradise Laudato), for some reason home alone, plan their escape to their country house wearing white plastic suits, having come to terms in their own minds about what they are up against: “It’s simple. The clouds aren’t what they say”.
Back in the UK, we are managing in our own way, while our Prime Minister (Neil May) stands in front of a green screen pretending he is outside Number 10 while in reality he’s legged it. He badgers his advisor Major John (Grant Murphy) for updates which he then disputes, constantly verbally abusing the army man who is trying to convince the PM that it is in fact aliens.
There’s a witch’s coven wandering around the North East countryside, made up of a telepathic mute girl, a bouncy Geordie redhead (Chantelle Readman) who calls everyone Flower and seems to be the most sorted person still alive in Britain, and an Antipodean head witch who sees the apocalypse as a chance to commune with a large rock. And a group of young men (the ones worrying about the beer, and Jet from Gladiators), one of whom has a piece of meteorite that is somehow connected.
Sometimes this juxtaposition is put to comedic use – we cut from earnest Canadians holed up in Nova Scotia saying hopefully “we’ve got some of the most intelligent people working on this!” to the UK PM asking “what’s the plan, Major?” and receiving the reply “let’s just nuke the bastards Sir!”. An Indian man (Pratyush Singh) videoing a message for his mum says of the violence breaking out that people are “infected by rage and it’s from the cloud”, while a ground-down bearded Brit notes with a touch of melancholy as things actually start to look up, that it’s the “worst apocalypse ever”.
Breathe Easy is an interesting film with a fascinating creative background, a background which naturally imbues the story itself. But it is jarring (deliberately so) and to enjoy it you have to accept from the off that tone, style, and story varies with each segment. Subtitles are in different fonts, the colour palette changes. Some scenes are touching, others instil dread, others are laugh-out-loud or simply bizarre.
The acting does vary, including in tone, which goes from naturalistic to satirically melodramatic. Kalent Zaiz who plays pregnant Maria in LA is particularly good, as are the Laudato sisters who play the Australian girls, Megan Alexander and Calvyn Grandling from the Cape Town segment, and young Bulgarian actress Yanitsa Halacheva who plays Rasa (though to be fair these roles probably offer greater scope). The film also feels slightly too long as despite it being the end of the world in many ways nothing much happens.
Having said that, Breathe Easy is an astonishing achievement. It manages to tell one, overriding story from several different, arresting perspectives and cultures (the end of days, apocalypse or whatever people call it, is a key theme around the world). And it actually got made, with so many directors, writers crew and actors involved. It really is unlike anything I’ve seen before, which is quite apt considering its story.
More about Breathe Easy:
- Interview with Paul Mackie, producer of Breathe Easy.
- Interview with Stephen Nagel, director of the Cape Town segment.
- Interview with Zoe Cunningham, actress in the UK segment.
The full list of directors involved in Breathe Easy: Stephen Nagel (Cape Town, South Africa), Jonnie Howard (Cambridge, UK), Sebastian Matthias Weissbach (Berlin, Germany), Sahar Raie (Germany), Stacia Toybal (Los Angeles, USA), Pavel Guzman (Mexico), Vincent Chan (Hong Kong), Robert David Duncan (Vancouver, Canada), Jack Eaton (UK), Gia Frino (Australia), Keif Gwinn (LDN News newsroom, UK), Jeffrey Palmer (Introduction), Satyendra Pandey (India), Lina-Maria Stoyanova (Bulgaria), Karl Stefan Roser (Stuttgart, Germany), Patrick Lanctot (Nova Scotia, Canada), Ryan W Martin & Dylan House (USA), Bianca Juliette O’Neill (Tshwane / Pretoria, South Africa). Music by Jeff Fiorentino.