Breathe (12A)

Three stars

Dir: Andy Serkis

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With: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander

Runtime: 117 minutes

AFORE we go on, check out that name next to the director’s credit above: Andy Serkis, the very same shape-shifting actor behind Caesar the ape, Gollum, and King Kong, some of the best special effects creations in modern movie history.

Not for Serkis sticking with what you know, however. For his next trick, his directorial debut, he has ventured as far as possible from the green screen, turning in an old-fashioned, terribly British, based-on-a-true-story drama about disability, the reality that cannot be denied or disguised. The new job proves as fine a fit for Serkis as any of those motion capture bodysuits he once wore.

Breathe is the story of Robin Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield), a pukka young Englishman and tea buyer who has gone with his wife Diana (Claire Foy) to work in Kenya as the sun sets on the 1950s. Colonial life is grand, there is always a tennis game to be had, and Diana is pregnant with their first child. Life is tickety-boo. Then along comes the polio virus, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and only able to breathe with the aid of a machine. He is 28. From having a whole life ahead of him, the doctors give him a matter of months.

Returning to Britain and placed on a polio ward, Cavendish does not want even that short a time. “How are we this morning?” a consultant asks him. “We wish we were dead,” replies Cavendish. Cavendish might want to give up, but his wife, with their son to raise, refuses to do so and demands that he be allowed home. Not possible says the consultant. Anything could go wrong with the breathing tube, and if it does, with no medical staff around, he’ll be dead in two minutes.

It was not the last seemingly insuperable obstacle that Cavendish and her husband were to overcome. From this point on, the Cavendishes were to bookies’ odds what Serkis’s Kong was to anyone who got between him and Naomi Watts. One by one they smashed them. The screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) covers events in chronological order, nothing fancy, but then nothing fancy is required when dealing with such extraordinary lives. With the help of his wife, family, and their many close friends (chief among them an inventor, Teddy Hall, played by Hugh Bonneville) Cavendish sets about making a life for himself.

What a jolly good show they all make of it. Breathe is a story not just of survival but of trying to live the best, most independent, life possible, from being at home rather than in hospital to going on holiday with the family. In believing that this was not just desirable for severely disabled people but their right, Cavendish was ahead of his time. He was certainly ahead of those in the medical profession who thought disabled people should be protected from the world, and vice versa.

Cavendish was lucky in that he had a large group of family and friends helping him. He, in turn, made it his business to help others, knocking on doors in Whitehall and travelling the world to raise awareness and money. In one deliciously tart scene, he and his wife are approaching a grand house and an equally grand potential donor (Diana Rigg). “Are we plucky or pitiful?” says the canny Diana.

Serkis, with a well-tuned ear for tone, makes some serious points with deceptive ease. Ditto his cast, with Garfield playing the charismatic Cavendish as pluck personified, and Foy finding a believable balance between Diana’s iron determination and her more vulnerable side.

While the overall tone is determinedly upbeat, Breathe tries not to minimise the impact of severe disability, on Cavendish or his family. Difficulty was always there in Cavendish’s life, and desperation never wholly went away. The couple still mourned the life that might have been. All this is touched upon, making for a picture that at times, particularly towards the end, can be a tough watch. That one leaves the cinema buoyed up is testament to a great story well told by Serkis.