There are cynics out there who snicker at any film, based on a true story, that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit at overcoming a physical handicap. I’ve been among the snickerers myself. But Breathe, the first film directed by motion-capture acting wizard Andy Serkis (Gollum, Snoke, King Kong, Caesar the ape), wore me down by the sheer force of its sincerity. Does the script by William Nicholson sometimes hit the sentiment pedal too hard? It does. But look at the tale it’s telling.
Andrew Garfield gives a fierce, fully committed performance as Robin Cavendish, a British army captain who left the service to help start a tea-broking business in Africa. In 1957, this cricket-playing social butterfly married Diana Blacker (Claire Foy of The Crown). But only a year later, when Diana was pregnant, the 28-year-old Robin was taken ill with polio and given just months to live. Falling into despair – who wouldn’t? – he could barely contemplate a life that left him wholly reliant on a machine to breathe. It’s the kind of body-restricted role that show-off stars leap at. Lucky for us, a real actor got there first. Garfield’s performance, with only a weakened voice and the working muscles in his jaw and face to express feelings, respects Robin’s plight by not using thespian tricks to highlight them.