Actor Andy Serkis' directorial debut Breathe follows the life of Robin Cavendish, paralyzed from the neck down after becoming ill with polio at age 28. Given three months to live, Cavendish becomes despondent, but his young wife Diana refuses to let him give in to grief. Together, the two defy expectations both medical and social, and advocate for more humane treatment of the disabled and chronically ill. With a plot like that, the film is clearly the kind of inspiring, tear-jerking movie that seems like a guarantee to be based on actual events. But is Breathe actually a true story?
Yes, it is, as an opening title card saying "What follows is true" makes clear. One would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though, as Serkis is known for his groundbreaking motion-capture acting in the world of the fantastic, like Lord of the Rings and the Planet Of The Apes series, rather than true story-based dramas. Breathe, a straightforward, real-life romance about overcoming adversity, seems an odd choice for his first film as director. Yet the facts of the story, and how it landed in Serkis' lap, are all the more fantastic for actually being real — truth, as always, is stranger than fiction.
Serkis founded The Imaginarium, a production company specializing in motion-capture, in 2011 with partner Jonathan Cavendish. After working on outside films like Avengers: The Age Of Ultron and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, the company's founders wanted to start producing features of its own. Serkis asked around, and Jonathan suggested the story of his parents — the Cavendishs. Breathe is based on Jonathan's version of his parents' life and relationship, albeit with what some reviews have negatively referred to as the film's "unending optimism."
In an interview with Tatler, Jonathan explained, "What I wanted to do was make a film about what I observed in my innocence, which was a love story of huge power between two people who loved one another as much on the day he died as on the day they met, despite everything." The film hews closely to the facts of the Cavendishs' lives together, including some less-than-optimistic moments. According to a Daily Mail interview, Jonathan says his father's first thought after diagnosis was to turn off the machine. "My mother was only 25," said Jonathan. "His view was: “You can start again.” But she wasn’t having any of it." Or as Diana puts it in the film, "you're not dead, and that's that."
It was Diana who insisted Robin come home from the hospital after living past his last expected year, an at-the-time highly unusual move for someone with such severe paralysis. The film follows Diana and Robin's insistence on living full, comfortable lives in spite of Robin's disability, and in spite of social convention dictating the disabled be kept out of sight in hospitals.
With the help of his friend and Oxford professor Teddy Hall (played in the film by Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville), Robin developed and personally tested wheelchairs with built-in respirators, freeing him from his iron lung and allowing for greater mobility. He and Diana were known for traveling widely, despite harrowing incidents like when the family's customized van broke down on a remote road in the Spanish mountains, and with it, the battery pack for Robin's breathing apparatus. In the movie, the scene breaks into a spontaneous party, with villagers coming to assist and ending up dancing as the family waits two excruciating days for the van's engineer to fly out and help.
In his Tatler interview Jonathan said of the scene, "It really happened. We hand-pumped for two days. Nobody could fall asleep." Moments like this, where life would be terrifying if it weren't so funny, are what the film focuses on. Robin's amiable dark humor at his situation is taken straight from life — in The Independent's obituary, friends noted "his capacity for laughing at, as well as with, his friends was healthily deflating."
Robin went on to become one of the longest-living polio survivors in Great Britain. Diana, now 83, never remarried after her husband's 1994 death, and lives in the same Oxfordshire village depicted in the film. Capturing someone's life on screen in under two hours requires editing and modification, and the final product is always a compromise with reality. But in the case of Breathe, its core romance and determined cheer are absolutely authentic. Jonathan told Tatler his mother's reaction to seeing her life on screen was, “Although clearly it wasn’t us, it was in the spirit of everything we did.” That's not a bad review at all.