Breathe, a film that once upon a time would have been called “a four-hanky picture” and starred Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson, could return Andrew Garfield to the Oscars as a best actor nominee — just a year after he landed his first Oscar nomination, in that category, for Hacksaw Ridge — for playing another real-life hero. And it might bring The Crown‘s Claire Foy along for the ride, too, in the best actress or, more likely, best supporting actress category.
Andy Serkis‘ feature directorial debut, which chronicles the life of Robin Cavendish (Garfield) — a British man who was stricken in his prime with polio but, thanks to the tireless support of his wife Diana Cavendish (Foy), son Jonathan and friends, persevered to an extent that no person with polio ever had before — premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, leaving most of those in Roy Thomson Hall sniffling and then standing in applause when the cast and some of the people they portray were acknowledged.
What’s most impressive about Garfield’s performance — though certainly not unprecedented, coming just three years after Eddie Redmayne‘s in The Theory of Everything, to cite but one example — is that he gives most of it with the use of only his face. After contracting polio, Robin lost the use of his limbs and was attached to a ventilator for the rest of his life, first in a bed and later, thanks to the ingenuity of him and those around him, in other places. Garfield movingly conveys the heartbreak that Cavendish must have felt as he watched life continue around him — including the birth of Jonathan — and then later developed a conviction not to just survive, but to truly live. The fact that Cavendish comes across as an immensely likable person only helps.
Foy’s character — the wife who not only stands by her man, but devotes her life to his — is, by nature, less showy, but also very moving. And others who have played similar parts have been duly rewarded in the past.
The film itself, which Bleecker Street will release Oct. 13, probably lacks that certain spark of originality that a film usually needs to land a best picture or best director nomination. But it marks an impressive start behind the camera for Serkis, in a year in which he already did some of the best acting work of his career in War for the Planet of the Apes.