BREATH

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Simon Baker

Stars: Simon Baker, Elizabeth Debicki, Samuel Coulter, Ben Spence, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake, Jacek Koman, Miranda Frangou.

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This haunting and elegiac coming of age tale is set on the wind-swept coastline of Western Australia in the 70s. It centres around two 14-year old boys and surf rats – Bruce Pike, aka Pikelet, (played by newcomer Samuel Coulter) and Ivan Loon, aka Loonie, (newcomer Ben Spence) – who are best friends. Pike is a good boy from a respectable family. He is quiet, and a good student. By contrast Loon comes from a broken home and lives with his alcoholic and abusive father (Jacek Koman), and he is more self-destructive, and has a thirst for adventure and taking risks.

While out surfing one morning they encounter Sando (Simon Baker, from tv series The Mentalist, etc), a veteran surfer who now leads a quiet life in his ramshackle house. Sensing a shared love for the surf in the two boys Sando takes them under his wing. They learn that he was a champion surfer who has retired from the sport. The boys begin to hang around Sando’s house in their spare time and he becomes something of a surrogate father figure for them. He delivers little life lessons to the two boys, as well as suffusing them with the mythological purity of the ocean itself.

Pikelet finds himself increasingly intrigued by Sando’s enigmatic wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former ski champion who suffered a horrible leg injury that forced her out of the sport. It is clear that her scars are not purely physical though. Initially reluctant to have the boys hang around, Eva exerts an alluring erotic presence for Pikelet that has consequences for his friendship with Loon and Sando.

This is a thematically rich and gorgeous looking adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed 2008 coming-of-age novel and it contains elements and themes that have been a constant in his works like Lockie Leonard and The Turning. The film marks an assured feature film directorial debut for Baker, who has previously directed several episodes of his hit tv series The Mentalist (2008-15). Having himself grown up on the east coast of Australia, Baker obviously felt an affinity for the material. The film allowed him to combine his two passions. His direction is assured and measured, and he is respectful of the source material and has an obvious empathy for the characters.

With its complex coming-of-age story, Breath explores more profound themes than most other surfing movies, as it deals with issues of identity, family, sexual awakening and masculinity. Baker co-wrote the script with Winton. Breath is narrated by the older Pike (although the voice is provided by Winton himself, which suggests that there may well be an autobiographical element to the story), giving the film a melancholy tone. However, this film adaptation is not quite as dark as the source novel.

Baker brings his usual charm and easy-going style to his role as the enigmatic Sando, and he hints at something darker beneath the surface. Both Coulter and Spence were chosen for their surfing abilities, which lends an authenticity to those scenes, and Baker coaxes good performances from the newcomers. Their performances grow in confidence as the film moves along. Spence in particular has the golden locks and looks that suit his part and he projects the image of the surf rat, much in the mold of another of Winton’s famous creations with Lockie Leonard. Debicki delivers the more nuanced performance as Eva’s coldness and aloofness slowly gives away to something else.

The film wastes the talents of Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake, who play Pikelet’s parents; they are given little to do.

Breath mixes the nostalgic tropes of the rites of passage tale with the powerful beauty and forces of nature. The film has been beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Marden Dean (who captured some exquisite images for the little seen drama Fell, etc), who captures striking images of the small-town setting and the harsh coastline. His poetic images are complemented by the stunning underwater cinematography of Rick Rifici. The vast openness of the ocean itself is a wonderful contrast to the claustrophobic world inhabited by Pike and Loon and even Sando.

★★★☆

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