Breath (2017) | Dir. Simon Baker | Cast: Elizabeth Debicki, Rachael Blake, Richard Roxburgh, Simon Baker | Writers: Gerard Lee (adapted screenplay), Simon Baker (adapted screenplay), Tim Winton (based on the novel by), Tim Winton (novel)
The 1970s, Western Australia. Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter), nicknamed “Pikelet”, is growing up in a small coastal town, with his parents (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake). His best friend is Ivan Loon (Ben Spence), inevitably nicknamed “Loonie”. They hang out, ride their bikes, surf. The two boys meet Sando (Simon Blake), older, an expert surfer, who lives in a self-built house with his American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). Sando is a glamorous figure, a risk-taker, who will have a great effect on the two boys' lives.
Breath is based on Tim Winton’s novel from 2008 of the same title. Winton, born 1960 in a suburb of Perth, is a writer of prolific output: novels for adults and children, short fiction, plays and non-fiction. Although he is published in the UK and has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music), in Australia he’s officially a Living Treasure, being named as such in 1997 by the National Trust. He is the only writer, alive or dead, to have won the Miles Franklin Award, one of the country’s pre-eminent literary prizes, four times, and the fourth time was for this film's source material. His work is taught in schools, in particular his 1991 novel Cloudstreet, also a Miles Franklin winner. Needless to say, the film and television industries have not been slow to adapt his work, with cinema features based on the novels That Eye, The Sky and In the Winter Dark and one based on Dirt Music forthcoming, a portmanteau feature based on his short-story collection The Turning, and on the small screen a miniseries of Cloudstreet and a series based on his Lockie Leonard children’s books. Much of his work is inspired by the scenery and especially the coasts of his native Western Australia. He is also a keen surfer, and both of these inform Breath, novel and film.
The script is credited to Gerard Lee (a regular collaborator with Jane Campion), producer/star Baker and Winton himself. There are inevitably changes to the story, even to bring a relatively short novel in at just under two hours. The novel begins with a middle-aged Bruce Pike working as a paramedic, a short prologue leading into the main story as a flashback. Although the main characters are teenagers, ageing from thirteen to sixteen, it isn’t really a young-adult novel (it would have been at the older end of that marketing category in any case, due to language, drug use and sexual content) as it isn’t told “in the moment” but in retrospect from adulthood. That perspective is maintained in the film by occasional narration from an adult Pikelet, voiced by Winton himself. (He had a similar voiceover in “Big World”, the Warwick Thornton-directed segment of The Turning.) The film also departs from the novel by omitting the epilogue detailing the various fates of the characters, not happy ones for some.
The emphasis of the story is on the bond between Pikelet and Loonie, the intense kind often characteristic of teen years, and how Sando is a part of that and in time comes between them. It’s a very male film in many ways, with the female roles somewhat sidelined, whether that be Pikelet’s on-off school girlfriend Queenie (Miranda Frangou) or his mother (though the same could be said of his father). Eva is also a somewhat underwritten part, though Elizabeth Debicki makes more of it than is in the script. For about half the film, she’s a background character, looking on disapprovingly at Sando’s influence on the two boys. She has a backstory in that the sport she excelled at – skiing – is now denied her due to a leg injury bad enough to have left her with a limp and an unsightly scar. Debicki plays her with a latter day countercultural vibe, with Joni Mitchell being an avowed influence on her look. Her actions in the letter half of the film are not unexpected, but conveyed with a sensitivity lacking in many other coming-of-age stories. (Incidentally, in the interviews on this disc, Samson Coulter reveals that he had to wear lifts on his shoes to act opposite Debicki, so tall is she.)
Simon Baker gives Sando an ambiguous air, alluring but with a dangerous edge to him. Baker had directed episodes of TV series he had featured in, The Guardian and The Mentalist, but this is his feature directing debut and he does a fine job. Kudos have to go to cinematographers Marden Dean (above the water) and Rick Rifici (underwater), with the production shot in and around Denmark, WA. Production and costume design are first rate, with the mid-70s small town setting completely convincing. Harry Gregson-Williams's score is mournful and piano-based, though I'd suggest that Fleetwood Mac's “The Chain”, used in one key scene, is a little over-familiar to have the impact it should have.
Breath was shortlisted for nine AACTA Awards and won two, for Baker as Best Supporting Actor and for Best Sound. It had a UK premiere screening in London in October 2018 but so far has not had a commercial cinema, disc or streaming release in the UK.
Breath is teleased on Blu-ray by Roadshow. The film has the Australian advisory M rating. That’s for “Mature themes, sex scenes and coarse language”, and this film would be a very likely 15 if it were submitted to the BBFC.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.85:1. Breath was shot digitally on the Red Dragon, and I’d be surprised if any 35mm prints were struck, so this has been a production in the digital realm from start to finish. The film has a slightly darker cast to it than the brightly-coloured look you might expect from a film with so much action on beaches and on surfboards, but that’s no doubt intentional, and partly because this clearly wasn’t shot at high summer. We're on the south coast of the country, and the next landfall would be Antarctica. Although I haven’t seen this in the cinema, I wouldn’t doubt that this looks much as it would projected from a DCP.
The soundtrack is DTS-HD MA 5.1, with a Dolby Surround (2.0) audio-descriptive option. The results are certainly clear and well-balanced, with quite a lot going on in the surfing scenes. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras have a Play All option. They begin with two brief items, a behind-the-scenes featurette (4:43) and a set tour (4:22). The former is as you would expect, made up of on-set footage with interviews with key participants, and it doesn’t go very deep. The second is more interesting, as it highlights one of the most under-sung major crew members on most film shoots, namely the production designer, here Steven Jones-Evans, as he shows us round Sando and Eva’s house, which was purpose-built for the production, and the effort to make it look as hand-built and lived-in as it does.
The bulk of the extras are interviews, two and a half hours of them, with a Play All option of their own. These are with, in order: Simon Baker (3:59), Tim Winton (14:48), Elizabeth Debicki (12:00), producer Jamie Hilton (12:21), Steven Jones-Evans (9:27), Richard Roxburgh (12:57), Rachael Blake (13:31), Samson Coulter (11:22), Ben Spence (5:07), props master Jodie Cooper (9:18), costume designer Terri Lamera (13:51), makeup and hair designer Shane Thomas (11:46), executive producer Tom Williams (13:48) and Rick Rifici (6:42). There’s a lot there, and inevitably some repetition and mutual backslapping, but there is interesting material to be had, and it’s noticeable that the director/star is the one with the least to say. There’s also a split between those old enough to remember the time when the film is set and those younger, and both Debicki and Lamera discuss the 1970s women’s liberation movement with regards to Eva’s character.