Film Review: Breath

Breath is an often-beautiful-looking drama tinged with a dark Ausralian tone that, in the end, doesn’t quite come together.

Launceston lad Simon Baker retuned to Australia (after a very successful career in movies and TV in America and beyond) to make his feature directorial début with this ambitious filming of Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel. Baker (who co-stars, co-produced and worked on the screenplay with Gerard Lee and Winton himself) nevertheless should be praised for the darkly Aussie tone, the evocation of those knowing but naïve ‘70s, and for his handling of the cast, especially the teen leads, neither of whom had acted before. But they could certainly surf!

Somewhere in the mid-1970s in coastal Western Australia (it was filmed in Denmark and Albany, WA) we meet a quiet, not-quite-14 teen nicknamed ‘Pikelet’ (Samson Coulter), whose best mate ‘Loonie’ (Ben Spence) is a wild, impulsive kid who teaches Pikelet about life and fear. Early scenes show the pair aimlessly passing the time, dangerously playing around on their bikes and then lying about it to Pikelet’s parents (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake, who vanish rather conveniently from the plot for long periods).

When they watch some hippies surfing the pair are quickly obsessed with the sport, and this leads them to a friendship with the older Sando (Baker), a master wave-rider and a man with secrets. He’s keen to teach them both about the ocean, and this results in some fairly amazing sequences where Baker and his young stars are seen out in very real breakers and mostly genuinely surfing. Rick Rifici has a special credit for the water cinematography (Marden Dean lensed the scenes on land), and they’re spectacular indeed, although you do have to wonder what the film’s OHS and insurance departments thought about this footage.

Times passes and though it’s not clear how much, the kids are convincingly made to look somewhat older. Naturally Pikelet finds himself fascinated by Sando’s sensual, mysterious and damaged American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki playing up her accent), even though he has a perfectly sweet girlfriend (Miranda Frangou) at school. Eva dominates much of the film’s final act and there are a series of dark turns involving her character which feel slightly iffy, although Debicki is very strong and there’s excellent use of the Fleetwood Mac classic The Chain.

The best Aussie movie of the year so far, this will still be criticised by some for leaving so many seemingly important plot points just hanging and so much unresolved. But, well, that’s life, mate.

Rated M. Breath is in cinemas now.

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