The Denver Post

Andrew Garfield shines as a disability-rights champion in “Breathe”

- By Alan Zilberman

★★55 Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.

“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, tragedy strikes, as her 28year-old husband collapses, becomes paralyzed and can only breathe with the assistance of a mechanical 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 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.

Another standout sequence features Robin on vacation in the Spanish countrysid­e: After the mechanical ventilator breaks, members of his family take turns squeezing a breathing apparatus that is little more than an airbag-andhose. Such vignettes avoid portraying Robin as a hero, instead showing him to be an ordinary man in a difficult situation.

Famous for such motioncapt­ure 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 affec- tion, 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,” the actress 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.

More often, there are others in the room: Teddy or Diana’s twin brothers, played by Tom Hollander. At times, viewers may feel like a third wheel — watching a couple who clearly had a more fascinatin­g relationsh­ip than the one we see.

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.

All the same, “Breathe” relies too heavily on Jonathan’s memories without ever really getting inside Robin’s head — an unbalanced approach that no amount of acting can compensate for. If its subject were around to see this film, would he appreciate the tender care that his son obviously took in making it? Or might he be annoyed to have so little attention paid to what he himself was thinking?

 ?? David Bloomer, Bleeker Street-Participan­t Media ?? Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy star as Robin and Diana Cavendish in “Breathe.”
David Bloomer, Bleeker Street-Participan­t Media Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy star as Robin and Diana Cavendish in “Breathe.”

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