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London Film Festival Review: Breathe – “A wonderful directorial debut from the multi-talented Andy Serkis”

It may seem strange or even counterintuitive for an artist who has achieved global fame thanks to his revolutionary, technology-advancing work in the realm of CGI motion capture, to choose a rather VFX-less, old-school romance as his directorial debut. Yet, like in all of Andy Serkis’ work, you need to go beneath the surface in order to appreciate the subtle depths he touches with his brilliantly understated craftsmanship. Sure, Breathe isn’t a CGI-filled blockbuster adaptation of fantasy literature but it’s still an amazing true story about love overcoming tragedy and the incommensurable resilience of the human spirit – and that’s a whole other level of epic.

What makes this fully-fledged directorial debut – after years of experience directing second unit on The Hobbit films – a particularly heartfelt and poignant choice is the personal resonance the story has on Mr. Serkis. Breathe, in fact, tells the inspirational, albeit little-known real-life experience of Robin and Diana Cavendish, parents of Serkis’ producing partner at The Imaginarium Studios, Jonathan Cavendish. The film is indeed a son’s tribute to his dear parents whose love for each other knew no boundaries and whose life mission became a gift to others affected by the same tragedy.

Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, a former soldier of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps who left the Army to start a tea-broking business in Africa, only to be diagnosed with polio at 28 years of age and live the rest of his life paralysed from the neck down, breathing through a machine. The film picks up in the late 50s as Robin attends a high society Cricket game where he meets and immediately falls for the beautiful and, in his friends’ eyes, unattainable Diana Blacker (played by The Crown’s Clare Foy). Robin doesn’t care about rumours and is extremely determined with his courtship hence his genuine charm wins Diana over at once. Love at first sight leads to marriage in 1957 and a return to Kenya for Robin’s business.

It’s in that exotic land where Diana gets pregnant but also where Robin contracts polio, which suddenly turns their life together from fun and adventurous to hopelessly gloomy. The prognosis for polio patients was three months at the time and that prospect throws Robin into a spiralling depression, which only seems heightened by the birth of his son Jonathan and by Diana’s obstinate choice to remain by his side no matter what. Back in England, for quite a while Robin wants to end his life and doesn’t want Diana to ruin her own and their son’s by sticking around. However, he is bound to discover that his wife’s reaction to such insurmountable challenge simply comes from genuine and unconditional love.

Diana isn’t either a saint or a superhuman nurse. She simply loves him, the kind of love that gives you no choice but to be with someone through thick and thin. That eventually gives him the strength to react and he does so to the point of becoming one of the longest-lived British polio patients whose life depended on the aid of a mechanical ventilator. With the help of generous friends like inventor Teddy Hall (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) and Diana’s twin brothers (played by Tom Hollander), Robin is taken home against doctor’s orders to actually live the rest of his life, whatever that might be and spend quality time with his family. That alone, however, isn’t the only extraordinary thing Cavendish accomplished. He and his wife became advocates for the disabled, helping people with the same condition and the medical community at large to realise the lengths one could still reach in spite of their illness.

If the cynic in you is already thinking: “oversentimental Oscar bait”, please think again. Yes, this a very British period drama based on a true story in the same realm of 2014’s The Theory Of Everything, yet Breathe never comes across as meticulously designed to hit the typical Hollywood story beats – and it’s probably due to the filmmakers’ personal attachment to the material. The film is a son’s moving love letter to his parents and their inspirational life together against all odds.

This makes all the difference and it shows, especially when it comes down to the wealth of emotional moments, which never feel forced and are skillfully balanced with the more light-hearted, albeit always inspirational ones. From the sense of authenticity leaping off the pages of William Nicholson’s script (writer of Les Misérables and Gladiator among others) to the irresistible on-screen chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, who successfully capture the essence of this couple’s heartbreaking love, there’s no doubt Breathe is a wonderful directorial debut from the multi-talented Serkis.

Beautifully photographed and impeccably produced, faithful to its decades-spanning period setting, this is an actors’ film and the whole cast delivers inspired performances across the board and Garfield leads the talented ensemble with the charm and empathy that have made him one of the most formidable thespians of his generation. Serkis directs with confidence and a nostalgic feel for old fashion Hollywood, finding a perfect balance between pathos and humour. An incredible and uplifting true story worth discovering, there’s no doubt the filmmakers have crafted a heartfelt piece of cinema that honours Robin Cavendish’s memory and legacy.

Breathe is the opening night gala of the 2017 BFI London Festival on October 4th and it’s released in UK cinemas on October 27th.

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