"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 28-year-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-and-hose. Such vignettes avoid portraying Robin as a hero, instead showing him to be an ordinary man in a difficult situation. 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," 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?
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual situations and bloody medical imagery. 117 minutes.