When it comes to disability activists — especially those most hampered in terms of mobility — few stories are as inspiring as that of Robin Cavendish. That’s why it’s unfortunate the movie about him, “Breathe,” the feature directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, feels so constricted by cliché.
Cavendish, played by Andrew Garfield, was a well-to-do British adventurer stricken by polio while traveling in Africa in the late 1950s with his loving wife, Diana (Claire Foy). Confined to a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down, and dependent on a breathing machine, Cavendish was expected to lie there and accept an accelerated death sentence. But a combination of will, innovation and generosity — started by proving he could live at home, continued by inventing a wheelchair with a respirator, and burnished by advocating for responauts everywhere — extended his life for decades.
This is material ready-made to raise spirits, but it’s as complacent with its ingredients as the doctor character who huffs at the notion that Cavendish can live outside a disabled ward. William Nicholson’s script is a stiff-upper-lip ode with spice notes of plucky humor, but lacking a messy intelligence.
Serkis is content to fill that predictably shaped vessel with exquisitely measured layers of gorgeous cinematography (from Robert Richardson) and performances arranged like flowers — including Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander (doubled, playing twins) as jaunty pals — which leaves a bloodlessness that keeps it from fully engaging the heart. Garfield and Foy, tasked with packing a whole marriage into one film, easily convey the attractiveness of being an indomitable team, but rarely get to plumb the depths of anything else.
It’s a much more effectively touching movie toward the end, when the twin engines of a rousing speech and a tough decision achieve dutiful emotional liftoff. But in leaving out the rasp of life from this unusual story, “Breathe” too often feels like a mechanized exhale.
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.; ArcLight Hollywood