Breath is an interesting film for those who haven’t read the novel by the same name from Australian writer Tim Winton (which was my case) but was also received well by those who did have prior knowledge and who finished the book beforehand. Those familiar with Tim Winton’s writing will recognize the slow meandering pace that is common, and this idea of “taking in the view” as the story unfolds has been captured well by first-time feature film director Simon Baker. The Australian actor-turned-director does a great job of capturing the essence of Tim Winton’s story, and carefully interpreting it for the screen.
Unfortunately, without knowledge of Tim Winton’s storytelling style, I fear the film may alienate outside audiences. Breath is extremely slow, and it actually got to a point for me where I became very aware of how long the film had spent trying to set up the story and capture the laidback vibe of WA’s South West, that I grew anxious thar Breath would be over before a story could be told. The conflict of the story came hard and fast and felt almost rushed when trying to tackle the somewhat confronting themes that are central to the story.
There’s no denying that this slow start allowed for some beautiful cinematography of the ocean, and the landscape is set up almost as a secondary character in the film with the time given for audiences to really appreciate it. Whilst some of the shots slightly missed the mark for me personally, the power and unpredictability of the ocean were captured, as was the supreme surfing skills of the two young main actors.
The main actors themselves were startlingly good considering they were cast for their surfing skills and taught how to act once cast. Samson Coulter plays the main protagonist Pikelet, with a sensitivity and maturity that seasoned actors struggle to conjure. His ability to keep Pikelet’s emotions just below the surface ultimately has you rooting for Pikelet, even when some of his actions are less morally driven. Pikelet’s quiet sensibility is offset perfectly by the loud, brash Loonie (Ben Spence), whose knack of wild tales and hard ocka expressions bring about many laughs to give the heavy themes a bit of comical relief. Again, I wonder how Loonie will translate to international audiences, but on a local level, he is the perfect embodiment of the slightly rougher characters you find in Australian country towns.
In terms of the story, there were a couple of moments that felt more significant than the screen time they were given, such as a horrific car crash that Pikelet comes across, and gives him his first experience with death. Despite the suggestion that he suffered shock afterwards, the event is no longer mentioned or explored following this scene, making it an almost forgettable moment that supposedly had a lasting effect on him.
The real test for this film will be seeing how it performs on an international level. There are many Australian films that have been made in recent times that have performed well on a local scale but failed to translate properly to an international audience. Hopefull,y the success of Tim Winton’s novel will help to garner enough traction for Breath to make an impact on the international Box Office, but I fear that the film is too immersed in our unfamiliar South West culture to be relatable to outside audiences.
A worthy attempt by Simon Baker to create a truly Australian film with two young lead actors that I hope to see more of soon, but unless you’re a Tim Winton fan or want to see a bit of WA’s South West on-screen, I’d give it a miss.