Breathe, starring Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield and The Crown star Claire Foy tells the remarkable real-life story of Brit Robin Cavendish, who was paralysed after contracting polio in Kenya in 1958. At the time Cavendish was working as a tea broker and his new wife, Diana, had announced that she was pregnant.
Cavendish was reliant on a mechanical respirator to assist him with breathing and was given just three months, and then one year, to live. It’s a situation that is sombre and tragic, perfect fodder for a weepy, but this first film directed by award-winning actor Andy Serkis is an upbeat tale of triumph in the face of adversity. Cavendish managed to live a long life, beating the odds and transforming the lives of others reliant on “iron lungs”.
"I think people have been surprised that this is my directorial debut," says Serkis, who is best known as the world's foremost performance capture artist, having played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, in Kong: Skull Island. The expectation was that when Serkis sat in the director's chair, he would make a movie heavily reliant on performance capture technology. Indeed, that is on the horizon in his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which arrives in cinemas next year.
He shot The Jungle Book before Breathe, but Serkis explains, "Because Breathe is a shorter edit it came out first."
The fact that Serkis wanted to make Breathe, which is all about performance and story, should not be a surprise he says. "As an actor I've never drawn a distinction between performance capture acting and more conventional acting. It's more about working with brilliant scripts that I connect with, and ultimately it's about saying something important about the world we live in."
There is also a personal connection that Serkis has with the story. The lead character in Breathe is the father of Jonathan Cavendish, with whom Serkis co-founded a performance capture studio in 2011 called The Imaginarium. The London-based company has quickly grown and worked on blockbuster films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His colleague employed screenwriter William Nicholson to write the story of his father's life and upon completion gave it to Serkis.
“I wouldn’t let many people direct it,” says Cavendish. “But I knew Andy would direct it brilliantly and he has experience of disability; his sister has multiple sclerosis and his mum has taught disabled children.”
Serkis also played polio sufferer Ian Dury in a biography on the English rock'n'roll singer, whose band Ian Dury and the Blockheads sang the hit single Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick.
When Serkis sat down to read the script for Breathe, he says he was soon in tears, but mostly, "I loved the fact that Robin and Diana were pioneers creating a new way of living."
Garfield read the script and immediately knew he wanted to play Cavendish, even though it meant he would have to rely on facial tics and expressions. The timing was right because he says he wanted to tell an important story such as this one – Cavendish became a leading disability rights campaigner. “It’s the disabled that are feeling a lot of the brunt of the austerity cuts in the UK today, so it seems like a ripe time for the story and the hope is that the film inspires us to do better rather than backhand us with a message,” says Garfield.
While the two most recent celebrated films to feature disabled lead characters, The Theory of Everything (about Stephen Hawking) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (about Jean-Dominique Bauby), place heavy emphasis on the drama, Breathe starts by setting up the romantic attachment between Robin and Diana and then plays moments for fun and humour. These include scenes of Robin checking out of hospital, the invention of contraptions enabling him to have greater freedom, and his car breaking down in Spain, leaving him without batteries for his life-support machine.
But there are serious elements too. The medical authorities have a stubborn mindset about what can and cannot be done with polio sufferers, but Cavendish refuses to adhere to this.
Garfield says: “I think it’s important to note that the medical authorities thought they were protecting their patients, because the polio sufferers on ventilators had never left the hospital before because it was too risky, which makes sense as a stance. So the fact that Robin and Diana had decided that they were willing to risk death, to risk infection, an accident out there in the real world, meant that things changed, but it was only because he wanted to live a life that wasn’t restricted by being confined to a hospital ward.”
For Serkis, the fact that they decided to live life with their glass half-full was key. Following the illness, Robin went through a period of depression, but once he and Diana had a discussion about what would make his life better and acted on this, things began to change.
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“These people lived life to the full,” says 53-year-old Serkis. “So we were never intending to make a sad story about people with disability. They were always minutes away from death, which made their situation always feel so intense.”
For 34-year-old Garfield, making films such as Hacksaw Ridge and now Breathe are a breath of fresh air after the brouhaha that surrounded his turn as Spider-Man.
He says of his recent move to more dramatic roles: “There is always the tension between what your soul is actually being called to do versus what the world tells you to value. I think that happens to all of us, somehow.
“We all have to live with that tension all the time, which is really hard. I’m drawn to things that are trying to make some difference and change, I find it hard to go to work otherwise.”