By Robert Horton
Herald movie critic
The thing that saves Robin Cavendish — and also saves the movie about him, “Breathe” — is a stubborn strain of unsentimental, even sarcastic, humor.
This is a pleasant surprise. Inspirational films are supposed to be very sincere, with characters who carry on while fighting back tears. At its best, “Breathe” ignores that.
It’s the true account of two people who faced a devastating diagnosis at a time when attitudes about the severely disabled were unenlightened. Robin and Diana Cavendish had been married for little more than a year when he was struck by polio while in Africa in 1958.
The film, with the couple played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, gives a quick portrait of their courtship and marriage before settling on life after Robin’s illness. He is unable to move from the neck down, and his life expectancy is measured in months.
The remarkable story follows the Cavendishes as they plot to get him out of the hospital — essentially a warehouse of prisoners waiting to die — and into his own home.
Mobility comes when Robin collaborates with a professor friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), on a motorized wheelchair that contains a breathing unit (Robin can’t breathe on his own).
The next step is bringing the device to other disabled patients.
Veteran screenwriter William Nicholson and first-time director Andy Serkis guide this material with competence. There aren’t many surprises here, but (except for a bit of flashback soppiness near the end), they move crisply through the high points of a life.
Serkis may be new to directing, but “Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes” fans know him well — he’s the guy who gives those amazing motion-capture performances for mostly animated characters.
His actor’s sense surely has something to do with Garfield’s fine performance, in which the gangly actor — limited for 95 percent of the film to moving his facial muscles — conveys an impressive range of feeling.
Garfield has had Hollywood success in “Spider-Man” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” but he is British. And he manages to affect a posh Englishness even when he can’t raise his voice much over a whisper — Robin wears a dandy Ascot to cover his breathing tube, but he looks like he belongs in one anyway.
Guiding the filmmaking was producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana. That could explain why this movie doesn’t make a cartoon out of their lives. Whether snapping back at doctors or lording it over his own farewell party, the film’s Robin Cavendish prevails through humor and style.
“Breathe” (3 stars)
The true story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, who pioneered new attitudes about disabled people after Robin was struck by polio in 1958. The film, directed by Andy Serkis, doesn’t do anything too new, but it keeps a strain of unsentimental humor throughout, and features strong performances by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Meridian