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BREATH gets 7/10 Rough surf

Directed by Simon Baker
Starring Elizabeth Debicki, Simon Baker, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence

7/10

Adapting an award-wining novel by beloved Australian writer Tim Winton is certainly an ambitious task for your big screen debut, but one that actor Simon Baker has set for himself. Add to that the challenges of ocean filming and Breath should be enough to send most first time directors screaming in fright. However Baker produces a beautiful and intriguing piece, that goes a long way to capturing the spirit of the novel.

Set in a small country town in WA, Breath is the childhood recollections of Bruce “Pikelet” Pike (Samson Coulter, although Tim Winton provides the voice narration for the older Pikelet). After he and his best friend, Loonie (Ben Spence), discover surfing, they come to the attention of an older couple, Sando (Simon Baker) and Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). While Sando instructs them in surfing, Eva seeks to warn them about the flaws their mentor has.

Baker creates a scintillating cross between surfing film, The Old Man of the Sea, and a coming of age story. However, it’s certainly one that you have to work for, as Breath is slow to reveal its plot and themes. There is a meditative quality about the film, one that you need to relax into, and tease out the message. When it really comes down to it, Breath is even contradictory in that aspect – leaving no easy answers or solutions. It’s as capricious and as beautiful as the ocean that forms much of the spiritual heart of the film (capturing WA’s southern coast), and just as easy to turn.

Breath is divided into two distinct parts that impact on the growth of “Pikelet”. The first is his relationship with Sando, his love of surfing, and the zen-like wisdom he learns from that. Here he learns to embrace his fears and (through planning, preparation and practice) embrace the moment, and to become one with it. It encourages a bravery in the easily content and hesitant Pike. The second part, his relationship with Eva, shows the limits of this wisdom, and how things can fall apart in the real world. Both shape the character we see, but the second part is certainly harder to watch, as despite the rather nebulous nature of time in this piece, the suggestion of statutory rape is unavoidable, even if it is acceptable to the standards of the era.

Both that room to breathe and that complicated subject mater allows the actors to have their reign. Baker gives a great naturalistic performance as Sando, and although his charisma is palpable he allows the character’s flaws to be readily glimpsed. By comparison Debicki’s Eva is an enigma, damaged and brittle one moment, a powerful rip-tide the next. However it is the two new comers that steal the show. Ben Spence is an instantly recognisable iconic larrikin as Loonie, and you can positively see Samson Coulter’s Pikelet mature as the film progresses.

The result is a beautifully shot and somewhat enigmatic piece, and although not without its issues, allows the viewer a glimpse at the story’s hidden depths.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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