In real life, it is possible to be truly happy without a boulder suddenly dropping from the sky to smash you and your happiness to smithereens. It’s actually possible for people to be in a relationship and get along swimmingly without, in the very moment of thinking “Hey, this is great,” having a meteor bury them 50 feet under the ground.
But “Breathe” is a movie, and so we know that every time Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy smile at each other and hold hands and talk about what fun they’re having, they are seriously asking for it. We know, right then, that it’s only a matter of minutes before we’ll proceed to the traditional unspooling of the Three Obligatory Symptoms.
The first is always ignorable: Our hero loses at tennis to a lousy player and attributes this to fatigue. The second is always worse: He shows an instant aptitude for the Hula Hoop, but no sooner is he demonstrating his facility — and smiling and laughing in a guileless way that assumes a friendly universe — than he finds himself on the ground, collapsed for no reason at all. And then comes the third symptom, that which can’t be ignored: He wakes up horribly sick, stumbles a bit and then passes out altogether.
Everyone going into “Breathe” — that is, anyone who saw an advertisement, or a commercial, or a trailer, or a bit of publicity, or was given a reason to see it by a friend — knows or will know that “Breathe” is the inspirational saga of a real-life man in the 1950s who was struck down by polio at the age of 28. Yet there is something in the treatment of this true story that corresponds and almost seems subordinate to the usual Hollywood pattern. There’s not only the adherence to the Three Obligatory Symptoms, but a general determination to present horrible as not quite horrible, and people as somehow better, kinder and happier than they seemingly ever could be.
“Breathe” tells the story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a veteran of the British army who traveled the world for his tea brokerage company. He and wife Diana (Claire Foy) have a fun, active life and a baby on the way, when polio overtakes him suddenly. On the table, in the emergency room, he finds himself unable to breathe; whereupon, a doctor, with that blithe, British bluntness that is anything but reassuring, says, “We are going to have to get some oxygen into you somehow. We’ll have to smash our way in.”
Robin’s polio is so bad that he can’t move his arms or legs, can’t breathe on his own and can barely move his head. In 1958, that was a death sentence, and the promise of a death-in-life leading up to it. It meant an existence of being warehoused, of lying in bed in a ward with other patients, staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of all the various respirators. Director Andy Serkis and his production team make an impact with these ward scenes, which are dark, spare and unspeakably sad.
How Cavendish managed to salvage his life and even find positive things to do as a result of his paralysis is the story of the film. Along the way, we get a portrait of how disabled people were treated by the medical profession as late as 50 years ago — in some cases, as though they weren’t even sentient beings. That Cavendish escaped this fate has all to do with his wife, who is played simply by Foy as someone unaware of her own nobility, as a woman just going about her business.
“Breathe” is never dull and never loses its audience, but there is, inevitably, a certain sameness to the scenes, with Garfield spending a lot of time just sitting there with a goofy smile on his face. The film is determined to stay on the bright side, to keep it light, even if it means glossing over the worst of Robin’s ordeal. But this has the opposite effect of making us think about the parts they’re skipping over.
In the end, it really does seem these people were worth a movie, but that the movie is giving us only part of the story.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 117 minutes
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @MickLaSalle