It wouldn’t be a TIFF or awards season without a beautiful able-bodied movie star portraying a historically important disabled person. This time it’s Andrew Garfield doing the capital-I Important acting as Robin Cavendish in ‘Breathe’. Thankfully, the film is pleasantly watchable in a feel-good schmaltz kinda way.
The story kicks off with an impossibly dapper British couple played by Garfield and Claire Foy meeting cute and falling in love in mid-20th Century England while using phrases like “Jolly good” and possibly even “Cheerio.” (Actually, I don’t think anyone says that last word out loud, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of place in William Nicholson’s exceedingly British screenplay.) They wed and move to Kenya and everything seems perfect until Robin (Garfield) contracts polio and is suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a hospital bed and mechanical breathing apparatus and unable to speak, he wants to die, but his deeply devoted wife won’t let him. She gets him strong enough to speak and, against doctor’s wishes, even takes him home to live out the rest of his life with their young child outside a hospital.
This is where things get interesting. Because Robin Cavendish was so wealthy and happened to have a cheery inventor friend (played by Hugh Bonneville in his distinctly charming way), he creates a wheelchair that breathes for him and allows him to go outside and even travel. Eventually, Cavendish becomes an advocate and pioneer for the disabled, helping those struck with similar illness and conditions live a much fuller life. It’s a very sweet and moving story, acted with passion by the entire cast, especially Garfield and Foy, who are clearly angling for awards attention.
Weirdly enough, the project is the first directorial effort by Andy Serkis (Gollum, etc.) and was even produced by his motion capture company Imaginarium Studios. However, it’s hardly an effects-driven movie aside from some clever shots that allow the dapper Tom Hollander to play twins. Instead, it’s a very sincere period drama and heart-string pulling ode to the plight of the disabled. It’s executed in a very picturesque and pleasant way, determined not to offend and only melt hearts.
Manipulative? Sure, but in more good ways than bad. This middlebrow British bio-pic does that predictable genre a good service, delivering all the obvious plot beats, emotional arcs, and Oscar-clip montages with good taste and style. ‘Breathe’ is hardly a groundbreaking film and nowhere as important as it thinks it is, but it will pull happy, sappy and sad tears from viewers ready to spill them. The movie looks great, moves swiftly, and is filled with lovely performances. It ain’t high art and is far from what anyone might have guessed Andy Serkis’ directorial debut would be, but it works fine for what it is.