Pontificating about life and being a man is the aim of the game with Tim Winton’s seventies surfing focused novel, Breath, and first time director Simon Baker, with the help of co-writer Gerard Lee, manage to allay any fears that Winton’s work wouldn’t be given the honour it deserves. It also helps that the film is carried by three major forces at work: newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, and the stunning scenery of Denmark.
The plot is threadbare – Pikelet (Coulter) and Loonie (Spence) are best mates, and in their downtime they need something to keep them occupied. That thing ends up being surfing. As they watch in awe the skilled surfers carving paths through the angry waves, they’re lead to Simon Baker’s Sando, a world class surfer who help guide Pikelet and Loonie in the skill of surfing. That’s about it.
Prolific writer Tim Winton is as West Aussie as The Triffids, great beaches, and Quokkas. His books litter the households of Australia and make up a fair amount of the syllabus for high school and university English classes. Odds are, if you’re Australian, you’ve encountered at least one of Tim’s books along your book reading life. Whether you like his explorations of the Aussie male or not is another thing. Given Tim Winton also provides vocal assistance in the way of narration, well, your tolerance of the man will be tested if he’s not your thing.
Sure, Winton’s writing carries many of the same themes – growing up in rural Australia, the way Aussie males refuse to grapple with their emotions, and surfing, oh gosh, so much surfing -, but when isolated (as they are in Breath) these themes are well worth exploring. The predominant theme at work in Breath is how men deal with fear and anxiety, and what better way to explore such a theme than by having young guys surfing on raging waves.
It’s worthwhile shouting out the combined cinematography efforts of Marden Dean and Rick Rifici. Dean tackled the land cinematography, and as he’s shown with the stunning Boys in the Trees and Fell, he knows how to capture the Australian landscape perfectly. Rick Rifici showcases his talents as the water cinematographer perfectly. You feel like you’re in the water with the boys, the smell of the sea permeating out of the screen. If anything, watch Breath for some of the best surfing scenes in cinema.
The casting of surfers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence in the lead is inspired. As Simon Baker said, it’s harder to surf than it is to act, and while it would have been easy to cast stunt doubles to do the surfing scenes, it would have created a disconnect between the viewer and the narrative. It’s part of what makes Tom Cruise such an enjoyable actor to watch – you know it’s him hanging off the side of the worlds largest tower, and not some stunt guy with Cruise’s face CGI’d over theirs. Knowing that the actors are out there in the thick of the churn, working their ways towards the surf, and in turn, are the guys conquering the waves, adds to the experience of the story.
Not only do Coulter and Spence show their great talents as surfers on the water, they also impress with their natural performances. Winton’s dialogue is as ocker as it gets, as if he’s stuck a recorder in rural Australia and just crafted a narrative around the best lines. Coulter’s Pikelet is reserved and observant. He’s anxious, fearful, always questioning himself – and, as a typical male, he’s also not got much to say, which in turn relies on Coulter to deliver a lot of Pikelet’s emotions just through a look.
Ben Spence’s casting is inspired. His performance is one of the best of the year, portraying a true blue ocker Aussie male growing up. Thanks to an abusive father, Loonie doesn’t know how to release his pent up emotions, in turn goading himself into achieving difficult and dangerous feats – a huge wave, or a notorious surfing spot where a Great White is known to lurk. Self harm and destructive behaviours are peppered through Loonie’s life.
It’s impressive that Simon Baker’s Sando doesn’t become a wise, all knowing father figure that the boys need. He’s as flawed as they are. When Loonie acts out, there’s no reparation or guidance to help Loonie realise he’s doing something wrong. Instead, Sando whisks Loonie off to Indonesia for an impromptu surfing trip.
With that said, it’s disappointing that great actors like Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake, and Elizabeth Debicki, are given weak characters to work with. Sure, Roxburgh’s father is afraid of going out into the surf to do his fishing, but other than a few concerned glances, that’s all we get. Blake is wasted as an underwritten mother – a role that instead manages to show how talented Blake is as an actress, where you can easily see her filling in the gaps of the screenplay.
Worst is Debicki, who takes up the thankless role of damaged girlfriend who exists to reflect the men’s inhibitions and self worth. Sure, there’s a basis to her character – a skier who has had her dreams taken away from her because of an injury – that reflects the core themes of the film, but that’s still no excuse for how weak the character of Eva is written. When the film shifts focus to her in the third act, you can’t help but wish we were back out on the surf with the boys, watching the waves come crashing down in the ocean.
Which is where we’re left with Breath. It’s like a splash of ocean water – first it’s refreshing, exciting, and rejuvenating, then gradually as the salt water settles in your skin, it starts to dry out and makes you feel weathered and lifeless. Winton’s work has been faithfully transferred to the screen under the assured guidance of Simon Baker. The strengths are amplified (exploration of masculinity), and the weaknesses are equally amplified (poorly written women characters).
Given this will likely become a staple in English Literature classes around school rooms in Australia, kids of the future could have a lot worse to watch in regards to Australian literature transferred to films. Either way, teachers, keep an eye out for essays about fear and how sometimes you conquer it, sometimes it consumes you, and sometimes it makes you feel worthless, but it’s how you live with it that defines you.
Director: Simon Baker
Cast: Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Simon Baker
Writers: Gerard Lee, Simon Baker (Based on Breath by Tim Winton)