Even though he’s usually hidden, you know Andy Serkis from his motion-capture performances as 'The Lord of the Rings'’ Gollum and Caesar in the 'Planet of the Apes' movies. His directorial debut eschews fantasy worlds in favor of the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), rendered quadriplegic and mute by polio in 1950s Britain. Given months to live, he perseveres with the help of his stalwartly supportive wife, Diana ('The Crown'’s Claire Foy), and an inventive Oxford professor (Hugh Bonneville) who devises a special wheelchair and portable respirator which allows Robin to escape the confines of hospital care.
Given that 'Breathe' was produced by the Cavendishes’ own son, Jonathan, it’s not surprising that the vibe is more inspirational than confrontational, touching only briefly on the messy details of his parents’ lives in favor of unceasing, luminously filmed uplift. Yet under Serkis’s direction, the central performances remain affectingly unsentimental, with Foy a quiet tower of strength and Garfield bringing bracing humor to the initially defeatist Robin, who not only overcomes his own odds but becomes a groundbreaking advocate for the disabled. (There’s also a tart cameo by Diana Rigg as a wealthy benefactor.)
The movie sometimes strains for visual impact: A German medical facility is designed like a Kubrickian nightmare. But by film’s end, Robin and Diana’s devotion to each other wins you over—as does Serkis’s devotion to his story. While it’s a given that Serkis can wrangle the digital side, it bodes well for his upcoming 'Jungle Book' that he can prioritize the internal on occasion.