Motion-capture maestro Andy Serkis (Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” and Caesar from “The Planet of the Apes”) displays significantly less dexterity in his directorial debut, “Breathe.” It’s yet another triumph-of-the-human-spirit story that checks all the boxes in telling how disability advocate Robin Cavendish refused to allow a crippling bout of polio prevent him from leading a “normal” life.


Stricken at age 28, Cavendish was paralyzed from the neck down and given only months to live. But he defied the odds by — with the aid of a respirator — surviving the disease for 36 years until his death in 1994. The film, adoringly produced by Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, is a celebration of love, determination and possibility, but never really takes your breath away. Perhaps it comes too close on the heels of Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning — and bravura – turn as the ALS-stricken Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”


In “Breathe,” a very game — and sincere — Andrew Garfield, building on his Oscar-nominated work in “Hacksaw Ridge,” plays the spirited Cavendish, but he’s no Redmayne. Like him, Garfield is required to transform from a man full of life to being confined to a bed and later a wheelchair. But there’s no nuance, no feeling of actor melding into part.


The movie opens in the 1950s with Robin, playful and endearing, wooing eventual wife, Diana, played by Claire Foy in the same determined style she employs as Queen Elizabeth in TV’s “The Crown.” The newlyweds travel on a business trip to Kenya, where they reside for the next year. They dance in the moonlight, kiss under the Nairobi stars. She announces she’s pregnant. Tragedy strikes. A son is born — and so on.


Upon their return to London, Robin begs: “Let me die.” But Diana, whom Serkis bathes in a golden glow, is having none of it. Against doctor’s orders, she busts Robin out of hospital, determined to give him a better life in the new home she purchased. Diana places her twin bed right next to his, plugs in the respirator and retrofits their surroundings to enhance his life.


From there, “Breathe” presents Robin conquering a series of obstacles (a snafu with the respirator cord, sex), each more liberating than the next. And through it all, the couple’s


marriage becomes the heart and soul of the movie. But Diana has help.


Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) is Teddy, an inventor who constructs a mechanical chair with a built-in respirator. This is Robin’s ticket to freedom, allowing him to leave the confines of the bedroom and go outdoors and feel the sunshine on his cheeks. There’s even a grand adventure to Spain and backyard parties with lots of wine.


Although “Breathe” springs a few maudlin leaks, especially in the end, Serkis’ direction is mostly solid, especially for a first-timer. Ditto for the script by William Nicholson (“Everest”) that dutifully hits all the highlights, albeit without ever getting inside Robin’s head.


The film is best when it sticks to the facts of being disabled and how they are treated like outcasts. One harrowing scene takes place in a state-of-the-art German hospital where Robin — in his “Cavendish Chair” — rolls into a ward packed with a dozen hopeless polio patients confined to iron lungs. Upon seeing them, Robin’s signature ear-to-ear grin turns to stone, as if he’s realizing for the first time how fortunate he is. It’s a genuinely moving moment in a surprisingly unmoving, but well-intentioned, film.


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/dbarbuto_Ledger


“Breathe”


Cast: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville.


(PG for language and some suggestive material.)


Grade: B-