Breathe: Director Andy Serkis Draws On Real Life to Highlight Disability

By Kim Hughes

For a true story with all the elements of a grand drama — powerful love, sudden tragedy, compelling characters, triumph over adversity — the tale of English couple Robin and Diana Cavendish is largely and weirdly unknown. Or at least, it was until Andy Serkis sunk his teeth into it, directing the movie Breathe.

The actor best known as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot (a.k.a. the king of motion capture acting) learned about the Cavendish’s from their son Jonathan, who happens to be Serkis’s business partner. And what a story.


In the late 1950s, Robin Cavendish was struck by polio, paralyzed from the neck down. Rather than acquiesce to the advice of doctors of the era, who prescribed institutional care until death, Robin and devoted wife Diana decide to go home, and try to figure out a way of keeping Robin breathing (albeit artificially) while pursuing something resembling a normal life. In doing so, Robin and Diana shifted notions of what being disabled means. 

Inspirational, wrenching, funny, and fiesty, Breathe — billed as Serkis’ directorial debut although the forthcoming Jungle Book actually started sooner — is a lovely story hinged almost entirely on the performances (and chemistry) of leads Claire Foy as selfless, plucky Diana and Andrew Garfield as Robin, a role that required him to be prostrate throughout. 

Original Cin spoke with the engaging Serkis about Breathe during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall. Scroll down for our review of the film. 

Original Cin: You have a special connection to Jonathan Cavendish…

Andy Serkis: Yes, he is my business partner. In 2011, we set up the Imaginarium Studios in London, with the intention of storytelling and advancing the art of performance capture across all platforms, from film to theatre. We had started to develop other projects — we were actually developing Jungle Book, which is coming out next year — and then this one came about. And I said, ‘Look, I know I am better known for directing elves and Orcs and animals of the jungle. But I would love to have a go at directing your parents’ film.’ And Jonathan was complete on-board. Plus, I knew his mother quite well. The power of the script attracted me but also, my father was a doctor and my mother taught children who were disabled by polio, Thalidomide, spina bifida and similar diseases. And my sister suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. So, the subject matter was very close to my own heart.

OC: Was it scary taking on a story that was true and belonged to a friend… more stress in getting it right?

AS: We are great collaborators and Jonathan was very open. All the events in the film pretty much happened. But the way of interpreting those events was my job. When I explained to Jonathan what I wanted to do with the film — stressing that we were not making a documentary, it’s a movie based on a true story — he understood what I hoped to do. It’s obviously a love story but I did have a particular take on how I wanted to approach the material. It would have been possible to treat this movie as dark but that just wasn’t the essence of Robin and Diana. Their lives were vibrant and sophisticated and witty and the way they dealt with misfortune was extraordinary. For them, humour was the first line of defence. 

OC: The chemistry between your leads, Claire and Andrew, was essential to making this work, yes?

AS: Yes. I had worked with Claire previously on a miniseries called Little Dorrit and thought she’d be extraordinary as Diana, having known Diana. There is something very direct about her approach to her work and both her and Diana are very present just as human beings. Andrew’s ability to subsume himself in Robin’s character was also extraordinary. Their chemistry was clear from the start and it was a wonderful thing to behold. 

OC: What have you learned about disabled people having made this film?

AS: It’s all about equality. Disabled people want to be treated like everyone else. And disabled shouldn’t even be a word. The prejudice they encounter each day because they are regarded as ‘other’ needs to be completely eradicated. Empowerment is a key message in this movie. Luckily things have improved from the time when this film was set, a time when a doctor’s word was final. For Robin and Diana, heeding the doctor would have been tantamount to waiting in a room for death rather than living a life.



A knock-kneed love story at heart, Breathe — which follows real-life couple Robin and Diana Cavendish as they attempt to live normally following Robin’s crippling polio diagnosis — wants to be liked. It wants its audience to feel purposeful about the rights of the disabled. And it does. What it doesn’t do is genuinely engage or surprise, offering neat conclusions and platitudes where a little grit would raise its game. 

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy are fully invested in their roles and hugely watchable. But we know where we’re going almost from the first frame, and it’s hard not to feel manipulated when we arrive precisely where director Andy Serkis wants us to be. It couldn’t have been easy making the film while real-life son Jonathan Cavendish was looking on (he is Serkis’s business partner). But a clearer-eyed glimpse at the hardships faced by Diana and Robin would have brought this story home. -KH  

Breathe. Directed by Andy Serkis. Starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. Opens October 20 in Toronto, October 27 in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary and wide November 3.