IF I told you Andrew Garfield and Andy Serkis had been working on a film together, you may be forgiven for guessing it was something in the vein of The Amazing Spider-man 3.
Garfield, you imagine, would have wrestled back the Spider-man spandex from Tom Holland while Serkis, donning his performance-capture technology, would be playing a welcomingly complex comic book baddie.
The actual project the two have worked on together could not be any further from Peter Parker and spidey senses. Breathe – out in cinemas Friday (October 27) – recounts the true-life story of Robin Cavendish, a remarkable man who helped progress the living standards of severely disabled people after contracting polio at the youthful age of 28.
Alongside the magnificent Claire Foy (who plays Robin’s devoted wife, Diana), Garfield gives a transformative central performance as Robin. Playing a character who is paralysed from the neck down, Garfield relies on subtlety, such as the size of a grin or a reluctant glance, to convey the emotion of the man.
Given the subject matter, comparisons with Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) are not far off the mark. Another Oscar nomination surely awaits.
Speaking at a Curzon Mayfair Q&A, Garfield told the audience why he chose this project. He said: ‘The core of it felt like a person who wanted to live – what a simple and beautiful story. I saw in the script a man that had figured out how to live with such tremendous limitation, far greater than anything I have experienced.
‘I felt as if some of that could rub off on me. Somehow, I’ll be a better man for it. It was nothing but a privilege to play this person.’
Serkis, who makes his directorial debut on the film after working as a second unit director on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series, was also moved by Bill Nicholson’s script.
He revealed: ‘It was without a doubt the most powerful script I think I’ve ever read as an actor or director. Just the most incredible piece of writing, very beautifully understated but very powerful emotionally and funny. I cried my eyes out reading it.’
Even though the script was moving enough to make Gollum cry, the film is not a punishing or miserable watch. It showcases Robin’s lust for life – for his family, the outdoors and his friends – and Diana’s unwavering dedication and care for her husband’s well-being.
Serkis said of the film’s uplifting tone: ‘I didn’t want to make a dark and dour film about disability. This was always meant to be a film about the essence of Robin and Diana, and the wit and vibrancy of their lives.’
Ever the hard-worker, Serkis put together this project in a 14-week window during the post-production for his next directorial pursuit, The Jungle Book. Serkis’ desire to get Breathe reflected his passion for the script, as well as his own personal connection to the subject matter.
As he explained: ‘It felt so right. I felt immensely connected to it, not least because I have personal connections to disability. My mother taught disabled children, my father was a doctor, and my sister actually has MS and is in a wheelchair.’
No one is as personally connected to Robin and Diana’s story as their son, Jonathan. A film producer with credits such as Bridget Jones Diary and Croupier on his resume, Jonathan had been sitting on this personal story for some time.
After seeing a play by Bill Nicholson called Shadowlands, the idea that his parent’s story could make for a compelling big-screen experience began to take shape. He contacted Nicholson and the two began working on a screenplay.
Jonathan, who had set up a performance-capture and production company with Serkis named Imaginarium, revealed his mother was hit with ‘existential shock’ upon her first viewing of the film. Once this had worn off, the tears came flooding upon second viewing.
Jonathan was also grateful to hear of his mother’s approval – and love – for Garfield’s performance. When questioned on the challenge of capturing Robin’s spirit, Garfield responded: ‘It was all in the script. It was all written so clearly. You somehow have to find yourself in it and forget that you are not that person. It was exciting to try.
‘There was something about the depths of despair that Robin went to that I found weirdly inspiring. He allowed himself to go there and go to the brink of suicide. I think that without reaching that depth of darkness, he might not have found that longing to live.
‘I think there is some wisdom in that. The heights of joy he can reach because he’s reached the depths of darkness. That dynamic really interested me.’
Garfield mentioned his appreciation for Serkis’ work behind the camera in this accomplished – and unexpected – directorial debut from a man we usually associate with orcs, elves and overly intelligent apes.
Serkis pointed to his own experience as an actor as a key force behind his success on Breathe. He explained: ‘Actor-directors understand actors and a lot of directors don’t understand actors – I think that’s fair to say.
‘They are great visionaries and great at telling stories from the outside, but many directors don’t know how to create an atmosphere for actors. If I could do anything, I wanted to create an atmosphere for the great cast that we had to really come alive with their characters.’
Breathe is a well-acted and well-made portrayal of a compelling real-life story that is more than deserving of this cinematic spotlight.
It delivers ‘big emotion with British restraint,’ as Jonathan termed it. A story well worth experiencing this weekend.