Film Review: Breath

Simon Baker’s adaptation of ‘Breath’ does as much justice to Tim Winton’s modern Australian classic as possible but falls short itself of becoming an Aussie film classic

Simon Baker, Ben Spence and Samson Coulter eye of a wave in ‘Breath’

Tim Winton’s literary rap sheet firmly entrenches him as the male literary voice of our time.

From the sprawling, Dickensian Cloudstreet that firmly catapulted him into more mainstream Australia bookshelves, to his most recent work in The Shepherd’s Hut, Winton has steered us through lives and stories that often have a faint sense of not being too far from our own.

Taking on a Winton piece to adapt to film, at least on the surface, might not seem an overly difficult task. His world’s are re-creatable, his stories human and his protagonists easy to be sympathetic to.

Where the secret trap lies for a prospective film-maker — in the case of Breath, Simon Baker — is in bringing to the surface the more complex discussion of the human condition, particular around masculinity, conveyable in print where the reader has perfect access to the inner life of characters but less so in film where such can only be conveyed via action or through the omniscient narrator.

Baker is lucky on some level in that Winton handed him the latter on a silver platter. And yet, ironically, by not including a key framing aspect of this contained in the opening chapter of the book, he in turn diminished the power of such a device.

Pikelet (Samon Coulter) and best mate Loonie (Ben Spence), a pair of teen fishes out of water, are desperate to join the local surf crew and make the local waves their own. Enter: Sando (Simon Baker), ex-championship surfer, who takes the grommets under his wing. As they learn from Sando the language of the sea, the pair are also introduced in different ways to the cut and thrust of what it means to be ‘a man’.

In terms of the performances, Coulter is a natural, strikingly capturing Pikelet’s internal struggle with appreciating the loving life his family (played with gentle, suburban humility by Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) provide him with the excitement of the madness of his friendship with Loonie and the new masculine influence Sando offers the adolescent on the verge of manhood.

And Baker too swims deftly through Sando’s role in the narrative, taking up the double challenge of actor-director in his directorial debut with deftness and aplomb

These four are enough to carry the film, but in doing so highlight the lesser performances of Spence and Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Eva, Sando’s physically and spiritually wounded wife. This criticism can be tempered in that the former is obviously a new young actor doing the best he can in his first major acting outing, and the latter is trying to pull off a delicate role many actors would find challenging. Neither is by any means terrible — but both the nuances of the characters as written by Winton do escape the pair at times.

Those who loved the book, will at the very least enjoy the film — those who haven’t read it, will enjoy the themes it explores.

What stood out as more problematic is what I see as a wider malaise in Australian filmmaking when trying to genuinely represent what it is to be Australian. I’ve seen too many films where cliches are offered as a means of ‘Australian-ising’ characters. While these cliches, as with most cliches, may come from truth, more often than not they just don’t ring true on screen. Breath suffers from this malaise, particularly given the era, region and surfer subculture it’s set in, and while many might see this as a minor quibble, it’s a detail that often catches my ear and eye, so one I can’t let a film get away with it.

Notwithstanding this, and the narrative omission mentioned earlier, Breath at the very least is a solid and very watchable adaptation of the novel, beautifully shot by Marden Dean and Rick Rifici (with the latter particularly to be commended for his stunning water cinematography) and all pulled together by Baker.

Those who loved the book, will at the very least enjoy the film — those who haven’t read it, will enjoy the themes it explores.

All will leave remembering that awkward time of moving from the enchanted, protected land of childhood to the unexplored, exciting but challenging realm of what is to be an adult.

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