There are cynics out there who snicker at any film, based on a true story, that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit at overcoming a physical handicap. I’ve been among the snickerers myself. But Breathe, the first film directed by motion-capture acting wizard Andy Serkis (Gollum, Snoke, King Kong, Caesar the ape), wore me down by the sheer force of its sincerity. Does the script by William Nicholson sometimes hit the sentiment pedal too hard? It does. But look at the tale it’s telling.
Andrew Garfield gives a fierce, fully committed performance as Robin Cavendish, a British army captain who left the service to help start a tea-broking business in Africa. In 1957, this cricket-playing social butterfly married Diana Blacker (Claire Foy of The Crown). But only a year later, when Diana was pregnant, the 28-year-old Robin was taken ill with polio and given just months to live. Falling into despair – who wouldn’t? – he could barely contemplate a life that left him wholly reliant on a machine to breathe. It’s the kind of body-restricted role that show-off stars leap at. Lucky for us, a real actor got there first. Garfield’s performance, with only a weakened voice and the working muscles in his jaw and face to express feelings, respects Robin’s plight by not using thespian tricks to highlight them.
It takes months for Robin to emerge from a cocoon of anger and self-pity. It’s Diana who sees him through, and Foy’s splendid portrayal is made up of equal parts devotion and steel. Better yet, Robin defies medical experts by not dying (he lived until 1994) and by deciding he would not spend his life confined to a hospital bed. He and his friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) develop a wheelchair with an attached respirator, enabling Robin to travel (a trip to Spain is the film’s comic highlight) and other polio sufferers to do the same as Robin becomes a spokesperson for a cause he knows from the inside. Inspirational films can oversell an agenda. But when the inspiration is real, as it was with Robin and the legions of disabled people he helped, it merits cheers.
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Yes, Breathe shies away from untidy questions, such as what Robin does with a sex drive he can’t act upon. This may be due to the fact that Breathe is produced by Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s only son, who prefers remembering the good times he spent with dad – over, for example, the terror he felt when Robin’s respirator failed and he nearly choked to death. Breathe is content to be a loving tribute to a courageous man. It could have cut deeper and gone to places prestige films find unacceptable. But by all accounts, Robin’s high spirits and imperishable humor are based on truth, not Hollywood sugarcoating. And Garfield pulls us in, making us sense an alert mind yearning for expression and a chance to really live. He uncovers a physically imprisoned character’s beating heart.