Charting Human Spirit

Actor and pioneer in the world of motion-capture performance, Andy Serkis marks his directorial debut with Breathe, a surprisingly conventional and cloying real-life drama about polio sufferer Robin Cavendish. This former tea importer, who was struck down when he was 28, defied medical predictions, refusing to let this debilitating disease beat him. Even developing a wheelchair to help fellow sufferers, his is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.

Played by Andrew Garfield, it should be noted that the protagonist is the father of Serkis’ long-time business partner – and Breathe producer – Jonathan Cavendish. With this is mind, it’s no surprise that Serkis doesn’t dwell on the dark side for too long, even when his subject is at his lowest ebb. This is a film relentlessly upbeat even in the most life-or-death moments, notably on a Spanish jaunt where a potentially fatal mechanical failure is turned into a shindig with the locals.

Serkis and cinematographer Robert Richardson paint the English countryside in an idyllic, honeyed glow – a world of cricket matches and cucumber sandwiches. It doesn’t help that Tom Hollander plays identical twin friends to Cavendish, an entirely unnecessary distraction that further lends the film an eccentric sheen. The casting of Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, as another of the inner circle, further enhances the film’s rose-tinted view of the England of yore.

The actor who does stand out is Claire Foy. Playing Cavendish’s ever-loyal wife Diana, The Crown star brings realism to her character, the central relationship and the film. Her unconditional love in the bleakest of circumstances is beautifully portrayed by Foy, who grounds the story with an honest and intimate performance. As for Garfield, his work in The Social Network and Hacksaw Ridge showed him to be a gifted performer, but he struggles here to express himself fully.

Serkis, who doesn’t appear in the film, has made a loving tribute to Cavendish, but in a manner that has a gleam of the fairytale about it. Even a visit to Germany, where Cavendish sees other sufferers in hideous iron lung contraptions, feels like a trip to the ogre’s lair. But as a pro-disability story, it’s a touching drama full of heart and optimism. If only Serkis hadn’t sugar-coated so much of it.

James Mottram

Breathe opens in cinemas on 27 October. For more information, visit:

1. Still from Any Serkis’s Breathe.