As Oscar bait, “Breathe” never had a chance.
An upper class romance that morphs into an overcoming extreme disability bio-pic where that disability isn’t so much overcome as endured, its hero, Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is tad too passive, his wife (Claire Foy) a simple portrait in stiff upper lip stoicism.
That doesn’t mean this feel-good true story isn’t uplifting, that it doesn’t have its moments. The beatific smile Garfield unleashes here and there is simply electric. Especially when Cavendish, a polio patient condemned like all of his lot to the “prison” of a hospital where he cannot manage anything for himself, where a machine does his breathing for him , ventures back outside for the first time.
And other tiny triumphs build towards his “If this can be done for me, why not for everybody in an iron lung” or its equivalent life of advocacy.
We meet Robin just after “the War,” meeting the English Rose Diana (Foy) where all the posh Brits met — at a club cricket match. Rides in his Morgan roadster, picnics, swank dances follow, then married life where he, as an overseas tea broker, brings her with him wherever he goes.
And Kenya has the best tea of all.
But that’s where the free spirited pilot, hiker and athlete is struck low by one of history’s most accursed viruses. Polio brings him down, and his pals, the twins (Tom Hollander, comic relief and good at it) are the only ones he can croak out one last request to.
Pregnant Diana won’t hear of that. Back in the UK, the hidebound doctor (Jonathan Hyde) isn’t lying when he lays it all out there, the same way the doctors in Kenya did.
“This is about as good as its going to get.”
But there’s a professor-tinkerer in their circle of friends. As Teddy, Hugh Bonneville quite literally rides to the rescue, all jokes and quips and classic English optimism. He’ll strap a car-battery powered ventilator underneath a makeshift wheelchair, By Jove.
And just like that, high-maintenance Robin is mobile, able to get about (pushed about), ready to show his little boy the great wide world with his unbendingly optimistic wife.
Actor Andy Serkis (“Black Panther”) steps behind the camera to direct here, and manages a genial, slow-moving and upbeat picture — for the middle acts. The first act courtship is strictly “Masterpiece Theater,” and the drawn-out third-act a grim different picture with an altogether different agenda.
As awards bait, the hero’s journey feels too circumscribed, his accomplishments after his illness — advocating for improved mobility for his fellow patients, not merely warehousing them — noble, but limited. Serkis doesn’t wring as much emotion out of Robin’s big moments, or get anything at all when he “frees” the fellow trapped in the bed next to him (David Wilmot).
But one scene almost overcomes all those shortcomings, an argument for human dignity, the rights of those society had written off but refused to let die, for the holy calling of easing suffering and bettering lives. It occurs in Spain, where Teddy must be summoned to fix a life-threatening failure of the chair and shows up to an impromptu roadside fiesta where the locals have embraced Robin’s cause and his humanity and shown one and all just what can be gained by saving one life from this trap.
If you haven’t thought before now of Stephen Hawking and legions of others saved and contributing to the advancement of human civilization because of this change in attitude and deployment of technology, this is the moment you will.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde
Credits:Directed by Andy Serkis, script by William Nicholson. A Bleecker Street release.
Running time: 1:58