Review: Breath

A narrow reading of Tim Winton’s novel leaves the film far from deep. Disappointing.

Simon Baker, star of The Mentalist, returns home after an extended stint in the US to tackle one of Australia’s treasured authors in Tim Winton’s poetic surfer ode Breath, but the first time feature director and co-writer is in way over his head.

Goodness knows much more seasoned helmers have tried and bailed. Rabbit Proof Fence director Philip Noyce gave Dirt Music a red hot go, ultimately abandoning his script, acknowledging that he couldn’t capture Winton’s lyricism. It wouldn’t be easy, either, with much of his novels engaged in interior struggle over plot machinations.

And that’s where Baker seems to have come undone, but in the most self-defeating of ways. Selecting the narrowest reading of Winton’s 2008 book, adapted alongside Top of the Lake scribe Gerard Lee, Breath still loses sight of character.

Set in a coastal town in the 70s that’s so redolent of Winton’s obsession with the sea, Baker casts total newcomers Simon Coulter and Ben Spence, adept surfers, as best high school friends Pikelet and Loonie. Both do a very good job inhabiting the kind of lackadaisical hijinks boys of a certain restless age are renowned for, mucking about on their bikes chasing trucks like dogs and bargaining over pocket money for chopped wood.

Breath is probably at its strongest when laying the groundwork of their youthful, unlikely bond. A largely silent, thoughtful type, Pikelet is a very different soul from his mate Loonie, a whirling ball of barely restrained fury as his nickname suggests. You get the sense these boys’ shared lives won’t extend far beyond graduation.

As good as Coulter’s wild-eyed performance is, the early momentum in this coming-of-ager peters out pretty quickly as Baker struggles to extract the emotional heft from Winton’s foaming surf. It’s not that plot has to drive a movie forward, but in its absence, a writer/director has to fall back on impeccable character work.

That Loonie’s relationship with his father (Jacek Koman) is troubled is of little interest to Baker and must be inferred, for a good while, from the spare bed at Pikelet’s where he usually sleeps, only ever made overt via a broken arm later. So too Pikelet’s drifting from his loving family ­– a criminally all-but mute Richard Roxburgh and Rachel Blake ­­– who are more present, but even less in focus.

While it’s not all that unusual for parents to be almost absent in teen films, Baker clearly intends to establish himself as an alternative father figure in surf as spiritual guidance stoner Sando, a man who again we are told in the vaguest of ways was once a professional surfer but no longer, and who begrudges the memory. Sensing a pattern here?

Sando takes the teen boys under his wing, offering a place to stash their cheap surfboards at his reclusive bush retreat a mile from the beach. He then increasingly bullies them into pushing harder in the surf, confronting the ever more dangerous waves of ‘Old Smokey’. This should put him in a strangely creepy place, but sadly Baker, the weakest link in a pivotal role, is stuck in amiably bumbling mood even when a territorial development with Pikelet requires menace.

Likewise, Sando’s link with Loonie, and the barrier that erects between the teens, is so scantly drawn that when the wilder friend essentially disappears from the film, his absence is hardly felt. All the more perplexing given Coulter’s performance offers the biggest bang, spitting Aussie vernacular like bullets.

If Baker never achieves the required tussle in this triangle of men, then at least they are given a proper chunk of the tedious two-hour runtime, which is in stark contrast to his desultory treatment of women. If Blake is left to smile thinly, there’s hardly more attention spent on Queenie (Miranda Frangou), a schoolmate with a crush on Pikelet.

The worst offence is the wasting of Elizabeth Debicki as Sando’s wife Eva. Like him, she was once a professional athlete, a skier whose career was cut short by an injury that leaves her similarly at odds with the heights of her competitive past, but, unlike him, unable to pursue that which she loved so much, even if in no longer in competition.

Again, Baker seems ambivalent about her emotional plight after Sando abandons her in favour of a bromance adventure with Loonie. Women here are nothing but convenient props to further male plotlines that hardly go anywhere in the first place, so she is there as a bit player in Pikelet’s sexual awakening. Still, what little sense we get of the impact on him is frustrating – this despite sonorously intrusive narration from the boy’s older self, an irritatingly rookie error when adapting half a novel.

And though the original sin might be Winton’s, there’s a dull puritanical streak here that clumsily equates sexual kink – and self-medication with dope – with emotional damage, further labouring the tedium in film where Rick Rific’s surf cinematography does most of the heavy lifting. It’s not enough, and a laughably bad ending feels like a whole swathe of excised book tacked on for gratuitous consequence, undeserved.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords