Director: Simon Baker
Screenwriters: Simon Baker and Gerard Lee, based on the eponymous novel by Tim Winton
Runtime: 115 mins.
Australian release date: 3 May 2018
Previewed at: Roadshow Theatrette, Pyrmont, Sydney, on 17 April 2018.
Breath, Tim Winton’s novel about a teenager making the difficult transition to manhood, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009, a prize that’s presented to ‘a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’ The book was quickly sent to an American producer who instantly saw its emotional depth and beauty, recognising the universality of the central story despite its antipodean setting. He, in turn, passed it on to the Australian actor Simon Baker, star of TV’s The Mentalist, who said, “It had an immediately profound effect on me. Having grown up in a coastal town in Australia, and knowing the characters in the book, I was drawn in.” At that early stage it was envisaged that Baker would play the role of the story’s provocative older protagonist but before long he was working on the script with Top of the Lake writer Gerard Lee and discussing the project with the book’s author. “Tim was incredibly gracious and supportive. He let me play with the material in my own way. I needed to know that he would be okay with that. He said something to me that was very simple but profound; ‘When I finish writing a book, it’s no longer mine, it belongs to whomever reads it’. That statement is something that will always stick with me.” As deeply enmeshed in the material as he was, it readily became apparent to all concerned that the movie Breath would not only provide an acting role for Baker but it would also offer him his feature film directorial debut.
Sando (Baker) is a mysterious surfer with a secret past who’s admired from afar by a couple of thrill-seeking local lads, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence). Impressed by his skill on the waves the pair set out to emulate him, gradually acquiring boards of their own and when the older man allows the boys to leave their boards at his place a bond begins to form. Loonie lives at the local pub with his violent father (Jacek Koman) whereas Pikelet’s parents (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) are loving and supportive but staid and dull. Sando, on the other hand, is enigmatic and comes with a beautiful American wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), who was once a champion skier but who met with a serious accident and had to walk, limp really, away from her career. She’s still hoping surgery will repair her shattered limb and is frustrated and withdrawn at her lack of progress, while Sando seems to be more into sharing his time with the lads and taking them off the beaten track on surfing trips. He encourages them to face the challenge of bigger and bigger waves, egging them on and revelling in the experience of his mentorship. The boys become quite competitive as they conquer their fears - until the day one of them breaks, causing their relationship to drastically alter.
Breath is a nostalgic step into the 1970s but the period is not really important, rather the emotional whirlpool that is coming of age is what matters in the story; Denmark, which hugs the south west coast of Western Australia, fills in for the unnamed timber town in which the events take place. It’s all wonderfully encapsulated by Marden Dean’s beautiful cinematography and Rick Rifici’s exhilarating water footage and superbly brought together by Dany Cooper’s editing. Together with Baker, they have succeeded in bringing the thrill of the surf (and first love) into your local multiplex. Credit must also go to Steve Jones-Evans authentic production design, which recreates the minutest details of country life at that time. The performances are riveting, especially the young boys who were both rookies. For their parts, Baker wisely decided to select surfers who hadn’t acted rather than actors who couldn’t surf and it paid off in spades. These kids inhabit their roles and if it wasn’t for Baker’s familiar face you could be fooled into thinking you’re watching a documentary at times. Anyone who’s grown up on the coast and in the surf will feel a deep connection to this magnificent tale but anyone at all who remembers their youth will identify with it in some way. Breath is intrinsically Australian but will resonate far and wide, not only for its visceral beauty, but for its honest portrayal of coming of age and its inevitable difficulties and complexities. Going through it, even in a far flung paradise, is a bittersweet experience.