Confronting fear on the cusp of manhood

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Breath (M). Director: Simon Baker. Starring: Samson Coulter, Simon Baker, Ben Spence, Elizabeth Debicki. 115 minutes

Simon Baker, Ben Spence and Samson Coulter in Tim Winton's BreathSurfing is a sport that can be all but inscrutable to the outsider. One of the remarkable achievements of Tim Winton's 2012 novel Breath was that, as a work of popular fiction, it so effectively brought the reader into not only the sport, but the lifestyle and psychology of surfing.

His repeated descriptions of surfing are anything but repetitious, capturing the awe and danger experienced by the surfer; evoking both the physical and transcendent aspects.

Actor-turned-director Baker's film adaptation achieves something similar. With cinematographer Rick Rifici he places the viewer at the centre of the action; we are with the characters — inhabitants of a West Australian coastal town in the 1970s — through each moment of anticipation, attempt, exhilarating triumph or chaotic failure.

These sequences are just stylised enough (restrained use of slow-motion; score mimicking the roiling of the ocean) to make clear that for the characters it is a spiritual as much as recreational exercise.

Pikelet (Coulter) is a gawky teen for whom surfing becomes an obsession. He and best mate Loonie (Spence) are no strangers to dosing adrenalin, be it through testing their lungs to excruciating lengths at the bottom of a river, or racing trucks on the highway while cycling.

Surfing is a new frontier, and they soon fall under the spell of Sando (Baker), a haunted, charismatic ex-pro who becomes a dubious mentor. His influence drives them to new levels of risk-taking, and tests their friendship to the utmost.

 

"They confront their fears: of physical peril; of failing, or failing to meet the expectations of the group; of existential ordinariness."

 

In exploring what motivates surfers, Breath becomes an examination of fear in its various forms. Following Sando, the boys conquer one hazardous feat after another: entering the ocean via massive rocky cauldrons; sharing waters with a mythic giant shark; tackling waves that rear up over a deadly shallow reef.

In so doing they confront their fears: of physical peril; of failing, or failing to meet the expectations of the group; of existential ordinariness.

This last is unpacked further through Eva (Debicki), Sando's wife, a former champion ski-jumper afflicted by a devastating knee injury.

Robbed of the thrills of her former sport, she seems literally to have faded; waif-like, she haunts her and Sando's shack, understanding his obsessions, but almost hostile in her estrangement from them.

As Pikelet will later discover, Eva has other avenues by which to pursue that rush. It's one of several painful life lessons that the events of Breath have in store for him.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

This review originally appeared in The Melbourne Anglican.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Simon Baker, Ben Spence, Samson Coulter, Tim Winton, Breath

 

 

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Existing comments

Tim Winton is a great writer and his readership reap the rewards. I have read "Breath" and it articulates superbly the allure of surfing and its impact on its devotees. However, it didn't capture me the way his short story "The Turning" was able to. That speaks of my personal reaction more than Winton's writing. I'd be unlikely to watch the movie for that reason, and I'm sure that would be my loss.
Pam | 09 May 2018


Not quite the classic coming-of-age "Captains Courageous", based on Kipling's novel; nonetheless, an engaging and visually impressive movie.
John | 10 May 2018


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