Practically a household name if not a household face, Andy Serkis may have done more than anyone in contemporary film to revise and expand perceptions of what constitutes screen acting. Whether as slippery no-man’s-creature Gollum or mighty chimpanzee warlord Caesar, his detailed, digitally abetted characterizations have effectively divorced the ideas of performance and physical presence, making the stage-trained thespian an unlikely flag-bearer for cinema’s more synthetic possibilities.
That future-minded reputation is scarcely in evidence, however, in “Breathe,” Serkis’ surprisingly fusty directorial debut. A soft square slab of British heritage filmmaking, bathed in buttery light nearly as golden as the awards it’s targeting, this earnestly romantic biopic of odds-beating polio patient Robin Cavendish and his unwavering wife, Diana, keeps its eyes moist and its upper lip stiff to the last — but its sweeping inspirational gestures rarely reach all the way to the heart.
Primarily a showcase for stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, “Breathe” allows both to essay the kind of old-school, hand-on-heart human emoting that Serkis himself (who stays out of the ensemble here) rarely gets to do on camera. On the other hand, one can see how the reigning king of disembodied performance would be drawn to direct Garfield in a role played almost entirely from the neck up: As Cavendish, a spirited tea broker suddenly and irreversibly paralyzed with polio at the age of 28, the actor conscientiously grimaces, gurns and grins through the chronic pain with a full body’s worth of expressive detail in his jaw alone. A big performance on a very contained canvas, it’s polished and presented as the kind of tour-de-force that won Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” — a film that could serve as a template for Serkis’s debut, though beside “Breathe’s” consistently lovestruck perspective and lush album of Robert Richardson-lensed sunsets, it looks positively gritty by comparison.
Produced by Cavendish’s own son Jonathan, the integrity of the project is beyond reproach, yet a slight sense of twee artifice creeps in from the introductory title card — not “Based on a true story,” but, more coyly, “What follows is true …,” as Nitin Sawhney’s thick, tinkly score strikes a matching note of whimsy. The opening scene, awash in cricket whites, straw boaters and cream teas, plays less as biographical scene-setting than as a halcyon ode to bygone England, as Cavendish meets young, comely Diana Blacker on a village green one swell summer’s day in 1957. William Nicholson’s script wastes no time setting a fairytale romance into motion: “I just know this is it,” Diana muses minutes into proceedings, though we’ve scarcely got to know the two perfect lovers just yet. Before we know it they’re married, flown off to a picture-book vision of colonial Kenya, and slow-dancing to Bing Crosby’s “True Love” under caramel African skies, though beyond their mutual wholesome attractiveness and good humor, neither character has come into focus.
If Serkis’s aim is to conjure an unsustainable idyll ahead of looming tragedy, job done. Yet far from turning to shades of rain once Cavendish is suddenly struck by polio and given mere months to live, “Breathe” maintains an unexpectedly breezy, on-the-bright-side tone — the filmmaking itself channeling the briskly British keep-calm-and-carry-on pluck that Diana, in particular, mustered to see the couple through years of adversity. “You’re not dead, and that’s that,” she admonishes her husband in spit-spot fashion, like a more doe-eyed Mary Poppins, while Cavendish stoically describes his predicament as “a bit of a bugger.” A year of confinement in a draconian London hospital, as the patient struggles to regain powers of communication, is depicted with suitable solemnity, though his lowermost anguish is kept to a minimum.
Once he and Diana defy doctor’s orders and leave the hospital, settling in a dreamy but supposedly ramshackle country pile, the film’s emotional trajectory is strictly upward, punctuated by simultaneous triumphs of mechanics and the spirit: Handily outliving the doctors’ prognosis, Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) develop a groundbreaking wheelchair with attached respirator, embarking on a course of life-enhancing advancements for polio sufferers worldwide. In “Breathe,” there is nary a setback that can’t be turned into a moment of teaching or cheer: Even a potentially fatal technical failure while holidaying in remote rural Spain is remedied with a communal fiesta, flamenco dancing taking the edge of a near-death experience. Elsewhere, the family dog accidentally unplugging Cavendish’s respirator is played for droll slapstick, timed to the patient’s short, gasping breaths; further, rather extraneous comic relief comes from a digitally doubled Tom Hollander as Diana’s sweetly doltish twin brothers Bloggs and David. (Distracting as it is, the seamless technological gimmickry enabling this sideshow performance does bear the stamp of Serkis’s more forward-thinking thespian agenda.)
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see Serkis and Nicholson blithely skating around the most turgid extremes of the disease-of-the-week genre. But as decades go by — Cavendish passed away in 1994, though the timeline feels indeterminately compressed in the second half — and “Breathe” kicks into a sterner gear, complete with noble, formal speechifying and considerations of euthanasia, the film’s emotional foundation feels a bit thin. To the end, we know little of the Cavendishes but their most laudable virtues of compassion and resilience: No surprise, given that the production is most palpably and affectionately a family affair. But no marriage this courageous under fire can have endured without moments of complication and conflict that are glossed over in Nicholson’s script, and Garfield and Foy struggle to carve out many edges or angles in their personable performances. (Consolidating her English-rose screen persona after playing the young Elizabeth II in TV’s “The Crown,” Foy practically makes Felicity Jones look like Béatrice Dalle.)
What’s left is the pleasant, well-turned-out precis of a story one is certain has deeper pain and poetry to offer, executed with heartfelt commitment to the cause but not a world of detail, either human or environmental: Even Robert Richardson’s typically lacquered cinematography seems to cut corners, casting East Africa, Spain and rural Oxfordshire in much the same toasty light. Serkis proves he can steer this kind of safe prestige machine as capably as any other industry journeyman, though it’s disappointing to see his most rule-breaking instincts as an actor on hold here.