There are a lot of movies that start strong, only to taper off and finish flat. “Breathe” struggles with the opposite problem.
Andy Serkis’ film — the actor’s first directorial credit — is based on the true story of Robin Cavendish, a polio victim who went on to pioneer groundbreaking advances for the severely disabled. At times, “Breathe” is moving and inspiring, but to get to the good bits, you have to get past a clumsy first act.
The film opens in a nostalgic sheen, thrusting you into the lives of a group of wealthy Britons in the 1950s. As they lounge and laugh and play cricket and make merry, audiences with a darker sense of humor might think of the material that Monty Python sketches used to send up back in the 1970s.
But the bigger problem is that “Breathe” races along with little explanation, and you barely catch any of the principal characters’ names before the protagonist meets his future wife, courts her, marries her, travels to Africa with her and contracts a life-altering disease. You might be better off arriving to this one 15 minutes in, where you’ll still quickly catch on to the plot.
Andrew Garfield plays Robin, an upper-class Briton whose life of leisure gets pulled out from under him when polio paralyzes him from the neck down. His devoted wife Diana (Claire Foy), pregnant when Robin first contracted the disease, is traumatized and then furious when her husband refuses to acknowledge his baby boy and insists that she leave him in the hospital to die.
At that point, you can hardly blame him. Robin needs a mechanical apparatus to breathe, and is stuck in a hospital ward filled with other miserable patients. Since polio victims are not expected to live long, Robin sees no point in delaying the inevitable. But Diana refuses to leave his side, eventually determining that getting him out of the hospital will improve his emotional outlook.
Enter the services of Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), an industrious family friend who devises a plan to not only get Robin free of the hospital, but eventually get him into his own motorized, breathing chair. From here, “Breathe” becomes a largely inspirational tale as Robin’s determination to live life on his own terms grows into significant breakthroughs that help others in his circumstance.
If only that opening wasn’t so clunky.
It’s clear to see that “Breathe” provided Garfield with a singular acting opportunity. He spends 95 percent of the film in a chair or a bed, limited only to performing from the neck up — and even then, sometimes Robin is unable to talk. Garfield meets the challenge, and Foy provides a sympathetic foil as his determined wife Diana.
Audiences may find the film’s conclusion a little more polarizing in light of the film’s earlier message, though unlike “Breathe’s” opening, it is more due to content than execution. Altogether, “Breathe” is a difficult movie to peg, flawed enough to merit serious criticism, but redeeming enough to consider. If there’s a poster child for the “wait for Redbox” category, “Breathe” might be it.
“Breathe” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images; running time: 117 minutes.