Thin air

If only every parade were this orderly.

If only every parade were this orderly.

Rated 2.0

We almost lost Andrew Garfield for a moment there. After a string of eye-catching supporting roles that culminated in 2010 with The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, the 29-year-old Garfield was tapped to play teenage Spider-Man in a franchise reboot that was foolish in conception and thoroughly botched in execution. The two Amazing Spider-Man movies were categorically awful and Garfield looked lost in the lead role, yet those two films monopolized nearly half a decade of his development before the plug got pulled.

Post-Spidey, Garfield meticulously set about rehabbing his reputation as an actor, re-embracing small movies by starring in Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, using his name value to get Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating Silence made, going through physical transformations for both Silence and Hacksaw Ridge and appearing on stage in a London Theater production of Angels in America. After all that savvy rehab, Garfield receives his reward: a starring role in a drippy biopic positioned to attract awards season attention.

Andy Serkis doffs the mo-cap suit to direct Breathe, an old-fashioned period piece about the British disability advocate and long-time “responaut” Robin Cavendish. While his devoted wife Diana was pregnant with their child, Robin became paralyzed from polio, and was only kept alive through a mechanical respirator. Although initially suicidal, Robin grew confident enough to leave the hospital, defying medical precedent by living a comparatively comfortable existence at home with his wife and son.

With the assistance of Diana and his friend Teddy Hall, an Oxford professor who helped develop a wheelchair with a built-in respirator, Robin traveled the world and became an advocate for the severely disabled. But as lovingly produced by Robin and Diana’s son Jonathan, Breathe doesn’t offer much more than auburn-tinged hero worship (Robin always seems to be wheeling into a standing ovation). There’s no story, no urgency and no antagonists other than some sputtering cartoon villain doctors and a banker with a runny nose.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) provides some lovely images, but the pleasant yet stale Breathe lacks even the puppy-soft edge of The Theory of Everything, a film that at least bestowed its characters with inner lives and human flaws. Claire Foy’s Diana gets the most neglected by Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson (Unbroken), and she’s left thoroughly undefined by anything except her heroic, starry-eyed love for Robin. Other supporting characters only exist to marvel at Robin’s awesomeness.

Garfield gives a fine lead performance, capturing Robin’s humor and persistence even when acting with just his face and a strangled voice, but falls well short of transcendence. Serkis (who shot a live-action/CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book as his directorial debut more than two years ago, but saw the release repeatedly pushed back when Disney’s version became a blockbuster) keeps things jovial and pip-pip until a final half-hour of inspiring speeches and merciless tear duct-wringing. Devoid of any fully realized characters, though, Breathe feels like an awards campaign in search of a film.