Andrew Garfield Delivers Career-High Performance in ‘Breathe’

One’s man’s perseverance in the face of tragedy that leaves him incapacitated in his prime is the focus of “Breathe,” a drama that tells the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a British man who becomes paralyzed after contracting polio. The film starts off almost as a fairy tale, with a dashing young Robin falling for and wooing the glamorous Diana (Claire Foy) in the picturesque British countryside in 1958. Following their marriage, the two relocate to an even more breathtakingly beautiful location, Kenya, for Robin’s work. Just as when Diana discovers that she is pregnant and their life is truly beginning, Robin finds himself helpless in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator, and the and now the pair face a trial that neither one thought that they would even be up for, one that would end up not only changing their lives, but thousands of others.

Understandably, Robin’s initial reaction is to asked for the plug to be pulled, but Diana refuses to entertain the idea. In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, she places their newborn on his shoulder, his eyes filled with pain and emotion. Her determination to keep her husband alive doesn’t come so much from a selfish place, but from a part of her that believes he has the strength to make it through. She eventually agrees to help him leave the hospital, against doctor’s orders, and devotes herself to becoming his full-time caretaker, her own former nanny (Penny Downie) agreeing to help out with their baby son, Jonathan, free of charge.

Not expecting to survive more than a few months, Robin defies the odds, eventually learning to talk again, not only due to Diana’s care and the love of their son (played by Dean-Charles Chapman as a young man), but also largely in part to an innovative professor friend, Teddy (Hugh Bonneville), who invents a wheelchair that allows Robin to travel with a portable respirator. Eventually, Robin, who once laid in a bed feeling helpless and sorry for himself, finds himself living a relatively joyful life with his family and friends, even getting to travel to different counties and experience a sex life again with Diana. He finds himself at a point where he is driven to help those less fortunate than himself, working to help raise money so Teddy’s chair can be mass produced. His journey not only leads him to the parlors of rich socialites, such as that of Lady Neville (Diana Riggs), but also to a hospital for the severely disabled in Germany, where him and the viewer witness what is perhaps the film’s most distressing scene, driving the point home how far medicine has come in 45 or so years.

The highlight of “Breathe” is indeed Garfield’s performance, which rivals that of Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” Directed by Andy Serkis, himself a prolific actor best known for playing Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” films, Garfield, while obviously limited physically, brilliantly portrays a range of emotions – desperate, helpless, grieved, terrified, joyful, and even snarky. In one memorable scene, Robin and Diana are told by the miserly head of an organization that helps that disabled that he doesn’t think it worth it to invest to the wheelchairs, but he is sorry for Robin’s condition, leading to Garfield to deliver a truly laugh-worthy retort. Foy, who has previously proved herself as a first-rate actress on the series “The Crown,” incorporates what she learned playing Queen Elizabeth here, as Diana is more than once underestimated for her being a beautiful society woman, but proves them wrong now and again with her steely determination.

After several years of living on a ventilator, Robin makes a decision, and much of the final third of the film is devoted to his wishes being carried. While there is an important message here, this final stretch drags. And while the film also delivers a powerful message about the importance of community, there are too many supporting characters here who could have been combined, most notably Tom Hollander as Diana’s twin brothers.

Breathe” opens Oct. 13 in Los Angeles and New York with a national release to follow.