“Breathe” sets out to offer a very specific kind of emotional experience and never wavers from that goal. The swooning period piece from director Andy Serkis tracks the decades of survival by Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a man stricken with polio in the ’50s who survived on a breathing machine for some 40 years, and the devotion of his wife Diana (Claire Foy) who stuck by his side that entire time. It’s a gorgeous, romantic drama that earns its emotional resonance without venturing beyond the most familiar beats.
The movie may not register as the most obvious choice of a debut for Serkis, best known as Hollywood’s preeminent motion-capture performer, whose credits range from Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” to Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, but its elegant, old-fashioned appeal shrouds the sophisticated performance at its center. Garfield, who spends the majority of the movie moving only his head and face, gives the most ambitious performance of his career and pretty much pulls it off. The obvious precedent, Eddie Redmayne’s deteriorating physical condition as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” certainly has a more chamelonesque power — but Garfield’s performance resonates in its own gentler way, giving credibility to his character’s resilience that elevates the movie above the constant threat of mawkish extremes.
Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson waste little time establishing the relationship between Robin and Diana, who meet on the road while Robin still enjoys a career in the export business. They’re still traveling around, enjoying a carefree existence, when a sudden attack leaves him bedridden and diagnosed with only a few months of life left. It’s here that Diana takes charge, keen on bringing Robin home to care for him there despite doctors’ claims that moving him will precipitate his demise. The couple’s decision to take a gamble on moving him to a more comfortable location becomes the first of several exciting moments where they take control of the situation at great risk.
Unlike Hawking, Robin isn’t some otherworldly genius when the illness takes hold, and so the scope is simpler, with the movie focusing almost entirely on his devotion to survival. From the bleak paralysis of the first act, Robin’s world keeps opening up, and in due time he’s eagerly collaborating with inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to construct a mobile version of his breathing machine that liberates him from the bedroom.
The couple eventually enjoy magical sunsets across Europe, become parents, and launch spectacular careers as activists helping to improve the lives of polio victims around the world. Produced by the Cavendishs’ now-grown son Jonathan, the movie has a hagiographic air throughout, as if incapable of showing any negative aspects of the couple’s story without finding its way back to another painterly image or upbeat moment. Serkis gains confidence in the material as he moves along, speeding through the decades (and aging his young actors to less-than-credible results in the process) and eventually giving Garfield the chance to deliver a few rousing speeches to bring the drama home.
Fortunately, the emotions are largely earned; “Breathe” nails its formula more often than not. Robin’s defiant ability to speak out about the virtual incarceration of polio patients in cold medical wards throughout Europe is a powerful stance that reflects the struggles he endures during the movie’s uneasy first half. In the later scenes depicting his old age, his exhaustion makes sense. Foy, whom many discovered through Netflix’s “The Crown,” gives a fragile, sincere performance as Robin’s endlessly supportive partner, but Garfield ultimately emerges as the real draw. With subtle facial tics, he’s able to convey a range of attitudes that serve as the movie’s soulful core.
Nicholson’s screenplay tracks Robin’s undulating devotion to his survival with a straightforward quality that lays its themes bare. “God’s a joke,” Robin asserts soon after his accident, losing faith in his situation. “No,” says a fellow polio patient in his ward, “god’s a joker.” Serkis’ movie inhabits that jovial mood throughout, squeezing its narrative with such a life-affirming embrace that it’s almost afraid to let the darkness in. “Breathe” may not be a realistic document of its subject, but as a celebration of his legacy, it does the trick.
“Breathe” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens October 13.