Actor Andy Serkis may be the Lawrence Olivier of motion-capture performance, providing the human backbone for detailed CGI characters like Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” movies and Supreme Leader Snoke in the new “Star Wars” movie.
So he might seem like an odd choice to make a such a throwback movie as his directorial debut, a British historical drama based on real-life events. But “Breathe” turns out to be just as full of life and energy as Serkis’ performances.
Andrew Garfield continues a run of terrific post-“Spider-Man” performances ("Silence," "Hacksaw Ridge") as Robin Cavendish, a dashing tea importer in 1950s Britain who finds life to be good to the last drop, whether it’s a good game of cricket with friends, a sunrise in Africa, or a courtship with his future wife Diana (Claire Foy of “The Crown.”)
But while on a trip to Africa , Robin contracts polio and is paralyzed, unable to breathe without a respirator. At 28, Robin yearns for death, but Diana, the embodiment of British pluck, won’t hear of it. With the help of a loyal group of friends and family, including Hugh Bonneville as an inventor and Tom Hollander in witty dual roles as twin brothers of Diana’s, she revives her husband’s spirits and works to help him savor as much of life as he still can.
That involves the creation of a special mobile chair, complete with a mobile breathing unit, at a time when most polio patients found themselves confined to an iron lung in a hospital for the rest of their lives. As he gets out and enjoys the world, the grinning Robin becomes a fervent advocate for disability rights, changing the way physicians treat their patients. A terrifying visit to a German polio ward, where patients are stacked like boxes in a windowless room, basically waiting to die, shows exactly what Robin is fighting against.
“Breathe” avoids falling into the trap of either being an “issue” film or a manipulative tearjerker about a hero with a fatal disease. Instead, much like Diana, the film is determined to put a brave face on Robin’s situation and emphasize the positive.
Although there are dark moments — a scene in which the family dogs accidentally unplugs Robin’s respirator is harrowing — the focus is on the life Robin still savored, even if it came to him in a trickle rather than a flood. Garfield’s charming performance conveys this optimism and resilience, even as he’s limited to acting from the neck up. Cinematographer Ralph Richardson conveys the sensual details of life with beautiful imagery; when Robin finally escapes the hospital, you can almost feel the sunlight on your face.
The movie was produced by the couple’s son, Jonathan Cavendish, and certainly has the feel of a love letter to his parents. But it also has the ring of truth.