Garfield por­trays dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cate in du­ti­ful biopic

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Alan Zil­ber­man

“Breathe” is meant, no doubt, as a sin­cere homage to the late dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cate Robin Cavendish, who died, af­ter liv­ing with po­lio for 36 years, in 1994.

Com­mis­sioned by his son, pro­ducer Jonathan Cavendish — who plays a mi­nor role in the film — and di­rected by Jonathan Cavendish’s busi­ness part­ner, ac­tor Andy Serkis, the movie has the tone of a eu­logy de­liv­ered by a du­ti­ful son: af­fec­tion­ate, com­pli­men­tary and maudlin. The story by screen­writer Wil­liam Ni­chol­son (“Ever­est”) jumps from one ma­jor episode in Robin’s life to an­other, but with none of those episodes delv­ing into his in­te­rior life, “Breathe” re­mains a su­per­fi­cial tear-jerker.

The tale be­gins in the late 1950s, with An­drew Garfield play­ing Robin as an ath­letic, dash­ing ad­ven­turer. Robin woos Diana (Claire Foy), and af­ter they marry, they fly to Kenya on busi­ness.

But af­ter Diana an­nounces her preg­nancy, her 28-year-old hus­band col­lapses, be­comes par­a­lyzed and can breathe only with the as­sis­tance of a ven­ti­la­tor. Upon re­turn­ing to Eng­land, Robin grows de­pressed, yearn­ing for death, but Diana will have none of it. Ig­nor­ing the warn­ings of his doc­tor, Robin — with Diana’s help — leaves the con­fines of the hos­pi­tal.

From this point for­ward, “Breathe” fol­lows Robin as he pushes for more and more free­dom, ul­ti­mately de­sign­ing — with the help of his in­ven­tor friend Teddy (Hugh Bon­neville) — a line of me­chan­i­cal chairs for the se­verely dis­abled.

When the movie sticks to the mat­ter-of-fact — the MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (con­tains sex­ual sit­u­a­tions and bloody med­i­cal im­agery) Run­ning time: 1:57 Opens: Fri­day dif­fi­cul­ties of us­ing an iron lung, for in­stance — it can be down­right har­row­ing. One scene shows the young Jonathan un­plug­ging the ma­chine, with­out his mother’s knowl­edge, as his fa­ther fee­bly gasps for breath.

As an ac­tor, Garfield ac­com­plishes a great deal with limited mo­bil­ity, con­vey­ing — with his eyes alone — both res­ig­na­tion at his cir­cum­stance and frus­tra­tion that he can­not do more.

Fa­mous for such mo­tion-cap­ture roles as Gol­lum in “The Lord of the Rings” and Cae­sar the chim­panzee in the “Planet of the Apes” fran­chises, Serkis, in his first time be­hind the cam­era, is a nat­u­ral, film­ing his ac­tors with af­fec­tion, an over­abun­dance of light and a com­mand of tone. Yet too much of “Breathe” re­lies on the pre­dictable tropes of the biopic.

Scenes in which Robin and Diana are told that they can­not do some­thing — whether by doc­tors or rel­a­tives — are fol­lowed, in short or­der, by scenes of them per­se­ver­ing in just that ac­tiv­ity. (The film glosses over the ques­tion of how they ar­rived at such af­flu­ence). Once Robin has achieved an un­prece­dented level of in­de­pen­dence, he turns his at­ten­tion toward help­ing oth­ers in his con­di­tion. He makes for a con­vinc­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tor, with a witty, in­for­mal speak­ing style that earns ap­plause at ev­ery ma­jor mile­stone.

The film’s emo­tional core is the Cavendishes’ mar­riage. Best known for her por­trayal of Queen El­iz­a­beth in the se­ries “The Crown,” Foy is sim­i­larly tac­i­turn here, de­liv­er­ing a per­for­mance that is con­vinc­ing in a role that doesn’t de­mand much of her ex­cept as it re­lates to Robin. The ques­tion of how the cou­ple make do in the bed­room is an­swered, taste­fully, yet many of their scenes alone to­gether feel per­func­tory.

Af­ter decades of liv­ing with po­lio, Robin un­der­goes a se­ries of med­i­cal crises, lead­ing him to make a dra­co­nian health de­ci­sion. To its credit, “Breathe” avoids histri­on­ics in fa­vor of un­der­state­ment, re-cre­at­ing the bit­ter­sweet emo­tions that Robin’s fam­ily mem­bers must have felt.


An­drew Garfield and Claire Foy star as Robin and Diana Cavendish in a film pro­duced by the Cavendishes’ son.

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