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For a Necessary Reminder that Unconditional Love Exists, See “Breathe”

Good, old-fashioned, unconditional love is the resonating theme throughout the powerful (and completely tear-jerking) new film, Breathe, an Elevation Pictures release that hits theatres in Canada this Friday (October 20).


The film, which marks Andy Serkis’s (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) feature film directorial debut, premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), leaving the audience both in a pool of tears and reconsidering what it means to really love someone in an increasingly disconnected era where romance is defined by things like heart emojis.

If you’re in search of all the feels, you’ll find them in Breathe, which is based on a true story (and if not, you may not have a heart).

Set over three decades, the film tells the true love story of Robin Cavendish (played by The Amazing Spider-Man’s Andrew Garfield), who contracted polio in 1958 at the age of 28, which left him paralyzed and confined to a bed with a diagnosis of just a few months to live. Taking the whole “in sickness and in health” as serious as it gets, his new wife Diana (played by Claire Foy from The Crown) devotes her life to keeping him alive, freeing him from the hospital and giving him the best quality of life possible. Throughout the years, with his help of his family and inventor Teddy Hall, Cavendish made it his mission to help fellow patients and the disabled, changing life for people with paralysis by proving that even those reliant on ventilators could be mobile and enjoy life.

The film was developed with Jonathan Cavendish – Robin and Diana’s son – who established a London-based performance house with Serkis in 2011. Just an infant at the time of his father’s paralysis, Jonathan witnessed the deep, unconditional bond between his parents firsthand.

While it may have been an easy trap for the film to turn dark and depressing at times, it was this love that lightened the tone and triggered the happy tears. “We were not making a documentary,” said Serkis during an interview during TIFF. “Although it was a true story, it’s a movie and a movie that would elevate the ideas behind what these characters represent in how they chose to live their lives.” He stressed that the love story was the central theme. “Treating the film a dark fashion wasn’t the essence of Robin and Diana and what I knew of them – their lives were vibrant, sophisticated, witty and humorous,” said Serkis, acknowledging that this affected the palette, scope and sense of adventure of the film.

It is this magic between the two that leaves even the most jaded heart in the audience wanting to fall in love again. The problem is that we’re as disconnected as ever in our app-facilitated dating culture, which reduces people to menu items, and where terms like “ghosting,” “phubbing” and “options” have become part of the game. “We are in an age of anxiety because of these devices and because of our super connectivity and it creates a two-dimensional shallowness with how we connect with one another,” said Garfield. “This film is harking back to a time when that type of intimacy and devotion was perhaps an easier option.”

Being able to fall in love requires an openness, emotional awareness and depth that, sadly, not everyone has anymore. Living like life could end at any time like the Cavendish family did means you live and love fiercely and in the moment – a mentality that is increasingly rare today.

“The amazing thing about their story was it was about, what is the other option? It wasn’t to stay in the hospital. Even through it seemed impossible to leave, they had to try. Even if they died trying, it would be worth it,” said Foy. “It’s remarkable to have that courage and bravery to say ‘What’s the worst that can happen? We may as well dive off the deep end.’ I would love to be able to do that a bit more.” (And, she jokes, “invent something that leads to some great change in the world at the same time”).

The chemistry between Garfield and Foy is as impossible to ignore in person as it is on screen. “When they first met, their chemistry was undeniable,” says Serkis. “It was a beautiful thing to behold.” A film of its scope just wouldn’t have worked if the chemistry between the two actors was lacking. “It was important that this relationship be sincere and authentic and because it’s the heart of the film – that these two share a heart,” said Garfield. “It’s a strange thing that they kind of become the same person, or an extension of one another, but not in an unhealthy way. They strangely managed to do it in a way that felt very independent, even though they were entirely dependent on each other in terms of making meaning in their life.”

So, is good, old-fashioned, unconditional love still possible, especially among the millennial set? Garfield and Foy think so. “It is possible. I think we are being conditioned away from it. So, it’s a choice. It has to be a choice whether to go for something we believe to be possible and true, or we go align with what capitalism has asked us to do, which is to kind of disconnect from one another and not accept all of our icky bits and other people’s icky bits because of that,” says Garfield. “How do you buck the system and say no to a society and a culture that is telling you how to live, when in your soul and your gut, you know something terribly wrong is happening?.”

Foy is optimistic. “I really have hope for the future and I think that a lot of things that society has constructed, are things people can live without – and at some point we will probably have to, which will be amazing,” sais Foy. “My child’s generation have all sorts if opportunities, they are raised differently. I tend to raise my child to be open and understanding and realize that everyone is the same; there is an equality. You don’t hurt other people and if you do, you apologize. You realize what you’re doing and you’re conscious of what you’re doing. I think that I have an understanding of myself not just as a woman, but a person, that my mom and grandmother were not given opportunity to have; I am thinking about things that none of my family had the opportunities to because of the types of conversations you’re allowed to have.”

When the next best option is a swipe away, it’s easy to focus on the less-than-ideal aspects of a potential love interest. But being hypercritical isn’t going to help your cause. Breathe is all about embracing another person in all of their good, bad and ugly glory and accepting limitations as fate as opposed to dwelling on them.

Whether society collectively returns to an embrace of that fierce, boundary-absent love remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure; if you need an awakening of your heart muscle (or a super bonding date night option), you’ll find it in this film.

Erin Davis

Erin is a Toronto-based actor, writer and queen of the side hustle. When she’s not writing the day away in a face mask, she’s taking in the city’s vibrant arts scene, doing a red carpet interview or brunching with her leading ladies. Follow me: @erinnicoledavis