A Breath of Fresh Air

Written by Jason Solomons

As an actor, Andy Serkis is known for his physical contortions and his pioneering mastery of CGI and green screens. You’ll know him as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or as Caesar the rebel-leading chimp in the Planet of the Apes. Serkis got so good at this relatively new, yet now ubiquitous, form of acting that he set up a school and studio called The Imaginarium to train others in the art.

Immersed in computer wizardry, actors often spend many days in a body stocking with green dots, acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick, only later seeing the computer- generated results of their somewhat ridiculous-looking labours. So in-demand has Serkis been for CGI-heavy roles, you don’t often see his real face. But one of his more memorable ‘straight’ roles was that of London rocker Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, in which he played the childhood polio sufferer whose band The Blockheads went on to have a number one hit with Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick.

I mention this role in particular because it has clearly informed Serkis’s first effort as a director, of the newly released Breathe, which tells the story of flamboyant British explorer and tea trader Robin Cavendish, who was stricken with polio in Kenya in the 1950s and given just weeks to live. It’s actually the true family story of Serkis’s Imaginarium partner, Jonathan Cavendish, who only revealed the drama in his own family at a late stage in his already prosperous career as a producer.

You’ll enjoy the way it has turned out: Claire Foy plays Cavendish’s wife, Diana, with a resilient practicality and huge, stoical love. Diana helped Robin – played by Andrew Garfield – return from Africa, battle with his crippling disease and live, however immobile, to see his son grow up, go on family holidays in a van, and even invent a specially adapted wheelchair that in turn gave freedom to thousands of severely disabled people.

It’s uplifting stuff and a quietly revolutionary story, told with an unfolding sense of wonder by Serkis and charmingly performed by Garfield and Foy, who both shine – Garfield may well be nominated for awards, although I think the appetite to garland this sort of performance is waning. It doesn’t make it any less impressive a feat of acting, it’s just that, well, Eddie Redmayne got there first. Sorry Andrew.

Elegantly told, the story is all about transcending the physical restrictions of the body, so you realise the direction Serkis is coming from: Robin Cavendish was an early trailblazer for going beyond what was thought possible, the same thing Serkis has been championing in his special effects acting. For someone who I’m sure would identify as a working-class actor, Serkis brings a warm, comic understanding to all the posh Brits being eccentric and jolly in a big country house, including Tom Hollander as bumbling twins and Hugh Bonneville as a bluff, bibulous inventor. There are several directorial flourishes, but for me it’s the sense of Robin’s weightlessness and helplessness that Serkis captures with real sensitivity.

I’m sure the reality of life with Robin Cavendish – who could only breathe with an electric pump – was a bit tougher than the film makes out, but there are moments of hardship and danger along the way (power cuts are a nightmare) and there’s a chilling scene, set in a German facility for the disabled, that will stick with me for years.

Breathe, of course, suggests lungs, however it’s best approached with an open heart. It’s a film in which death is never far from anyone’s thoughts but which prefers to focus on all that’s good about life.