In a hospital in the late 1950s, the wheeze and ca-chunk of the respirators sound like the inside of an Industrial Age factory, only the product being churned out is another few seconds of life. Compared to the elegant organism that is the healthy human body, the inflation and collapse of the pump is a tired accordion, and the hose connecting the machine to the patient's neck is bandaged and ungainly. For a few moments in Breathe, a British drama about the pioneering disability advocate Robin Cavendish, the visceral distress of a "responaut" comes through with extraordinary power. In order to continue living, the film suggests, the severely disabled are condemned to listen to the ceaseless, amplified noise of their own fragile mortality.
The sound recedes as the weeks, months, and years progress, and the film recedes in kind, yielding to impulses of a hero who considered the hospital a prison and did everything he could to insist on a better life. Breathe posits itself as an inspirational tale, but shies away from the difficult day-to-day realities of a polio-stricken man who was paralyzed from the neck down and depended on family and friends — to say nothing of reliable medical equipment and a steady electrical current — to survive for as long as he did. It feels distant from his experience, like a bedside visitor who steps away whenever the curtain is drawn.
In the hastily sketched opening scenes, Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) eyes the lovely Diana Blacker (Claire Foy) across the lush greens of an estate; it isn't long before they fall in love, get married, and set off to Kenya, where Cavendish does business as a tea broker. Soon Diana announces her pregnancy and, an eye-blink later, Cavendish collapses on the tennis court of the British embassy, a prelude to a total loss of feeling below the neck and a diagnosis of polio. Pinned to a hospital bed with limited speech and mere months to live, he sinks into anger and depression and begs Diana and her twin brothers (Tom Hollander) to let him die.
Diana has other ideas. Over the administrator's objections, she decides to pull her husband out of the hospital and bring him home, where he can have his own room and spend his remaining days watching their son grow up. But the Cavendishes won't settle for that, either. They commission their friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to design a wheelchair with an attached respirator and seek to lead some semblance of the adventurous life they assumed they'd enjoy together. They also spread the gospel to doctors and other severely disabled people who want to escape their fated confinement.
Directed by Andy Serkis, an actor best known for his groundbreaking motion-capture performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes series, Breathe centers on the type of lead performance that Serkis himself specializes in giving. Serkis' gift for projecting emotion through subtle contortions of his face and body is reflected in Garfield, who acts mostly with his lips and cheekbones, save for an occasional Groucho Marx flourish of the eyebrows. He doesn't play Cavendish as a noble sufferer but a puckish gentleman who works to reclaim the happy destiny that polio denied him.
Breathe respects his wishes a bit too much, twisting itself into a period art-house romance that's drunk on sentimentality and sun-touched panoramas of the countryside, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson. Not every film about the disabled has to be My Left Foot or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but Cavendish's paralysis is so discretely handled that the depth of his pain and his wife's sacrifice are largely unfelt. The breezy superficiality of their courtship carries over to Serkis' treatment of their marriage, which favors the inspirational over the intimate. We're left knowing the Cavendishes' contribution to the disabled community, but not knowing the Cavendishes.