Stylish and Dramatic, 'Breathless' Delivers

Breathless is an entertaining glimpse into a time period both dominated by men and also on the cusp of great change.


Distributor: PBS
Cast: Jack Davenport, Catherine Steadman, Zoe Boyle, Oliver Chris, Shaun Dingwall, Natasha Little, Joanna Page, Iain Glen, Holli Dempsey, Rudi Goodman
Network: ITV
US release date: 2014-08-26

Set in the New London Hospital in 1962, Breathless follows the lives of a group of doctors and nurses in the gynecology and obstetrics department. The series focuses on not only the work they do in the hospital, but also in how intertwined their personal lives are outside of work, complete with hidden secrets and burgeoning affairs.

The central doctor in the series is Otto Powell (Jack Davenport). Well regarded and very capable, Dr. Powell also presents a carefree persona, the polar opposite of his friend and colleague, anesthesiologist Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall). Enderbury is often nervous and high strung, while surgeon Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) is the young, handsome, charming, doctor that all the nurses love. Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman) and Jean Truscott (Zoe Boyle) are the two nurses who round out the hospital staff. Jean is engaged to Dr. Truscott at the beginning of the series and their young marriage is an integral part of the series.

As the Breathless is set in the early '60s, abortion is illegal and female patients are often treated more like children than spouses by their husbands. Since OB/GYNs are the focus of the series, many of the stigmas associated with abortion, menopause, and miscarriage are all addressed through the lens of the time period. The ways in which women were treated, and often dismissed, is an important part of the series. For instance, one woman sees her Dr. Truscott because she’s feeling depressed and as she sits in the doctor’s office with her husband, she reveals that she knows her husband is having an affair. Both the Dr. Truscott and the husband ignore her and she is prescribed medication and sent on her way. The almost callous way in which Dr. Truscott deals with this patient only reinforces the gender roles of the time, regardless of the maverick ways Dr. Powell operates.

The ways in which the male doctors often defer to the husbands of the women they’re treating is in direct contrast to the service frequently provided by the nurses. Nurse Wilson is especially sensitive to her patients, to the point where she becomes embroiled in the personal life of one in particular. Powell and Enderbury are also involved in an underground abortion practice, whereby a more modern sensibility frames the issue rather than the period’s own standards.

Starting slowly, the series really gets going once some of the ties between the characters are revealed, particularly as the situation involving both Nurse Wilson and Nurse Truscott is further fleshed out. Steadman and Boyle are an integral part of the success of the series, if only because they bring a genuine humanity to a cast that sometimes feels a little larger than life. Davenport’s Dr. Powell frequently straddles the line between charming and smarmy, but it is in his interactions with Nurse Wilson, as well as with his family, wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little) and son Thomas (Rudi Goodman), that he is at his most appealing.

Powell’s shared past with Enderbury is referenced cryptically throughout the series, often mentioned only as "Cyprus", which took place nine years earlier in 1953. This past has clearly bonded the two, despite their obvious differences and Powell’s insistence on leaving the whole thing behind. Enderbury brings it up with a frequency that makes the context and his motives unclear at times. Enderbury’s home life is a happy one, as he clearly loves his wife Lily (Joanna Page), herself a highlight, in a series filled with many strong characters. She is cheery and supportive, but not blind to her husband’s secrets. A former nurse, Lily understands the demands of the hospital and is more intelligent than some would give her credit, yet she shines when she interacts with the other women, especially Elizabeth and Jean.

The shadowy past that lingers over much of the series becomes an even more ominous threat when Inspector Ronald Mulligan (Iain Glen) is called in to investigate the disappearance of his niece Maureen (Holli Dempsey). His own past is also tied up in Cyprus, and coupled with his obsession with Elizabeth; Mulligan’s appearance brings to light much of the past. Glen is genuinely menacing as Mulligan’s investigation becomes more and more personal and leads to revealing much as much about the Powell marriage as to what happened in Cyprus.

Breathless is an entertaining glimpse into a time period certainly dominated by men, yet also on the cusp of great change. The soapy quality to the series is to its benefit, as it offers a familiar way to bring the viewer into a complex web of personal and professional secrets and misunderstandings. Similar to how Downton Abbey highlights the role that social niceties and expectations play into the lives of the characters—although not to the greater degree as in Victorian England—Breathless makes good use of the restrictions of the time.

Unfortunately, the DVD release does not contain any special features.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.