Andy Serkis, perhaps best-known for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, intentionally avoided a somber tone in his directorial debut Breathe, he said Tuesday.
The film, which had its world premiere Monday night in Toronto, is inspired by the parents of producer Jonathan Cavendish, Robin and Diana (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy), who defied medical convention after Robin was paralyzed by polio in his 20s and later blazed a trail as disability rights advocates.
“We took license, and I took license with elevating it and slightly lifting it,” Serkis said at a news conference following the premiere where it received three standing ovations, including one for the real-life Diana who was in attendance.
Early reviewers have been more critical, however, comparing the film unfavorably to The Theory of Everything, a biopic about Stephen Hawking for which Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar in 2015.
“This is very much a crude copy, its noble intentions hobbled by a trite script, flat characters and a relentlessly saccharine tone that eventually starts to grate,” a reviewer at the Hollywood Reporter wrote.
The pair are portrayed falling in love in an idyllic English countryside scene at the opening before honeymooning in Kenya and discovering they are expecting a child, Jonathan, just before Robin’s early-onset polio hits.
They later enlist a friend to create the first battery-powered mobile respirator mounted on a wheelchair, then push for them to be made widely available to those with polio.
“The essence of Robin and Diana was not drab in any sense, it was not murky or gray or somber, it was bright, they burned bright,” said Serkis, who also drew a personal connection to the film. His father was a doctor, his mother taught disabled children, and his sister has multiple sclerosis.
“This is a template of how any human being can deal with suffering, struggle and limitation,” actor Garfield said on the red carpet, later saying it was “strangely enjoyable” to play a character unable to control his body beyond facial expressions.
The Toronto International Film Festival is seen as an important stop for filmmakers showcasing their work in the long Hollywood awards season that culminates with the Oscars in March.
Serkis has also directed a Jungle Book film currently in post-production. Following its Toronto debut, Breathe will open next month’s London Film Festival before a broader October release.