Limited in actions, Andrew Garfield holds our attention in ‘Breathe’

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Diana (Claire Foy) works to get her paralyzed husband (Andrew Garfield) out of the hospital in “Breathe.” | BLEECKER STREET

We know Andrew Garfield’s Robin Cavendish is going to be paralyzed from the neck down for the bulk of this story, because this movie is called “Breathe” and it is based on the life and times of a man who is basically handed a death sentence in his 20s — but refuses to accept it, and in the process helps change the world.

The way young Robin hurtles through life, bashing away at a spirited game of cricket, driving recklessly through the English countryside, bounding about the rugged topography of Nairobi, one fully expects he’ll be grievously injured in a freak accident or a car wreck or a terrible fall.

But this being the late 1950s, it’s polio that strikes Robin.

One moment he’s a charming, handsome, athletic, perpetually upbeat chap, on top of the world. He’s over the moon in love with his wife, the kind and lovely socialite Diana (Claire Foy), who has just announced she’s pregnant; he’s surrounded by his legions of hail-fellow-well-met friends, and he’s rapidly growing his business as a tea broker.

Then one day Robin loses a tennis match to a lifelong friend who has never beat him. He feels dizzy and a little weak — but shrugs it off to the Kenyan heat and exhaustion from working so hard. Later that night he’s drenched in sweat and finding it difficult to breathe, and he collapses in a heap and is rushed to the hospital. And within a couple of days, doctors are telling Diana that Robin will never be able to move from the neck down, he cannot breathe without the aid of a machine, and in all likelihood he’ll be gone within months.

“Breathe” is the directorial debut of the most accomplished motion-capture actor in the world: Andy Serkis, celebrated for his award-worthy work as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and Caesar in the most recent “Planet of the Apes” series. It is no small irony an artist of such beautiful physicality and facial animation would choose to make a film about a man who is nearly frozen and has to strain mightily to find the strength to move his head enough to ring a bell dangling just an inch from his temples.

“Breathe” is an inspirational story well told, but it’s essentially a paint-by-numbers biopic of a very deserving subject, with only a few bursts of stylistic flair and a couple of minor surprises at best.

When Robin learns his fate, he falls into a deep depression, refuses to see his child, tries to send his wife away.

Diana, of course, will have nothing of the sort. She refuses to stop loving Robin.

In the mid-20th century, virtually all quadriplegics in the world spent their lives in hospital, rarely if ever seeing the light of day, hooked up to enormous and noisy breathing machines that looked and sounded like instruments of torture.

Diana won’t have that. Robin begins to find a renewed interest in life when he and Diana hatch a plan for Robin to return home because, after all, you just plug in the breathing machine, and they have outlets in houses as well as in hospitals, right?

Why yes, of course. Problem is, if the plug is dislodged from its socket or the power goes out at home as opposed to a hospital with 24-hour care, one will most likely die, and quite quickly.

As fortune would have it, Robin is dear friends with an Oxford professor who loves to tinker with all things mechanical and electrical, and the professor devises a crude but ingenious customized wheelchair with a portable respirator. (Hugh Bonneville, the patriarch in “Downton Abbey,” plays the mechanic-prof. It’s kind of fun to see the Earl of Grantham smeared with grease and banging away with wrenches and electrical sockets.)

Robin goes from nearly suicidal to perennially positive, enjoying the shocked looks he gets when he’s out and about in his motorized wheelchair. Most of his friends and their spouses seem to exist solely to gather ’round him at parties and to offer toasts in his honor and to accompany him on his travels on behalf of the disabled. It’s all very uplifting, especially when Robin succeeds in shocking the worldwide medical community into rethinking how they treat quadriplegics, but something tells me it can’t have been quite so much fun for so many years. (As if reminding himself of that, director Serkis suddenly switches gears in the late going, giving us repeated scenes in which Robin has trouble breathing, and his lungs fill with blood, and he nearly dies.)

Andrew Garfield is often cast as a man in action and in severe peril, from his turn in a couple of Spidey adventures to films such as “Silence” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” He’s just as effective here, even though the great bulk of his scenes have him bedridden or strapped into a bulky wheelchair.

Thirty minutes in, we’re pretty sure we know how the movie is going to turn out — even if we’re unfamiliar with Robin’s remarkable journey and his lasting impact. That doesn’t mean “Breathe” isn’t worth seeing; it just means that even though we’re watching Robin go through almost unbearably painful physical and emotional pain, it’s a pretty comfortable trip for the viewer.


Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Andy Serkis and written by William Nicholson. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images). Running time: 117 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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