One scene in Andy Serkis’s directorial debut, “Breathe,” suggests that the actor — best known as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and Caesar in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” franchise — might have promise as a filmmaker.
In a sterile, gleaming German clinic for the disabled, a stark white ward houses rows of patients stricken with paralysis and on life-support machines. Just their heads project from portals in the walls, like trophies in a hunter’s den. Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), similarly disabled, enters in a wheelchair jerry-rigged by himself and a friend. It is a contrast between well-intended dehumanization and the power of ingenuity combined with a determined spirit to overcome limitations.
Otherwise, though, too much of this based-on-truth drama relies on sentiment, manipulation, a bruising soundtrack, and lax storytelling. In rote segments, Serkis outlines Cavendish’s romance and marriage to Diana (Claire Foy) and their idyllic life in a honey-hued early 1960s Kenya, where he works as a tea broker (there’s only a passing mention of the anti-colonial violence then roiling Africa, but that is another story).
Diana is pregnant and all seems bliss, but a moment of faintness on the tennis court turns into something much worse. Cavendish has contracted polio. He becomes paralyzed from the neck down and must breathe through a ventilator for the rest of his life, which the doctors say is a matter of months at best.
Meanwhile, he is virtually imprisoned in a hospital ward headed by a draconian doctor who scoffs when the deeply depressed Cavendish, backed by a steadfast Diana, insists on leaving. With a little help from their friends and sympathetic staff members they sneak out the morgue entrance — a nice touch.
The rest of the film consists of other inventive ways that Cavendish manages to overcome limitations. These include the aforementioned wheelchair, equipped with a respirator, and a specially designed van — devices that would later improve the lives of thousands of other patients. Life seems one such triumph after another, and even a near-disastrous mechanical breakdown while on the road in Spain turns into a fiesta with the locals.
These successes are inspiring, but deeper and more complex emotions are unexplored. It’s no fault of Foy’s performance; she brings depth, humor, and conviction to her role as the devoted wife. Garfield, on the other hand, labors mightily but can’t overcome the superficiality of the character as scripted by William Nicholson (“Shadowlands”). A darkness hinted at early on returns, but without credibility or development. Too much effort has been spent on celebrating the right to live to then turn the focus on the right to die.
Directed by Andy Serkis. Written by William Nicholson. Starring Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Stephen Mangan, Diana Rigg, Hugh Bonneville. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 117 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic material including some bloody medical images).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.