At the Sydney premiere to Breath, director Simon Baker admitted he felt pressure from all sides while making the screen adaptation of Tim Winton’s book. To many people Winton is a national living treasure and a large percentage of them warned Baker “not to stuff up” Winton’s work.
And then there were the surfers. The surfing scenes in the book are not just beautifully rendered, they’re also authentic - they could only have been penned by a surfer. Yet surfing on celluloid is an altogether different beast. Too many times has great material devolved into diabolical execution with the end result just another warped impression of surfing. Up there on screen are people you’d never meet down the carpark, saying shit you’d never hear spoken, and yeah, they’re all riding fifty foot surf….of course.
These shortcomings needn’t be pointed out to Baker. He’s a surfer himself, grew up at Lennox, still gets out there, so he’s acutely aware of how badly surfing has been represented on screen. He’s seen all the celluloid misfires and was adamant they wouldn’t be repeated on his watch. You’ll be glad to hear that they aren’t. In Breath, the writer surfs, so does the director, all the ‘actors’ are surfers first, and the whole water unit surfs. There’s no bogus Bodhi-style mysticism, no heroic big wave scene, and the quirks of surfing culture are left unexplained.
Simon Baker as Sando, Ben Spence as Loonie, and Samson Coulter as Pikelet
Baker may have been faithful to surfing, but he has his way with Winton’s storyline. “Once the story is written it’s not mine anymore,” said Winton at the premiere, and in the film version of Breath, Baker puts less emphasis on some parts of the book while abolishing others.
Aside from the occasional narration, supplied by Winton himself, we never meet Bruce Pike as an adult. Our first introduction to Pikelet is as a teenager diving in the river with his mate Ivan - otherwise known as Loonie. Pikelet and Loonie are inseparable but they come from vastly different home lives: Pikelet’s parents are gentle and affectionate, while Loonie lives with his violent father.
They discover surfing and both are immediately smitten, each assuming the roles modelled to them. Pikelet, curious but cautious, while Loonie hurls himself at danger, putting up a front of mouthy bravado, but his unfulfilled needs are revealed in the way he responds to the nurturing stability of Pikelet's family.
As they progress, they’re pulled into the gravitational field of the local surfers, particularly Sando, who takes them under his wing, while at the same time each drifts away from their parent's orbit, viewing the world anew. And that’s one of the themes that Breath spins on; feeling the passions and impulses of an adult while not being armed with the perspicacity to deal with them.
Sando does his bit to teach Pikelet and Loonie how “to be extraordinary men”, taking them to isolated waves, building their confidence, and outlining a mission to ‘Nautilus’, an as yet unridden bommie. Having turned his back on a pro career due to an apparent clash of values, Sando treats fear as a means to personal growth. Not an unworthy premise, though best not tested on impressionable teens.
And with this, the dual theme of risk-taking begins taking shape. First in Sando’s tinny as they scope Nautilus and then when Sando leaves for Indonesia and Pikelet accepts the advances of Sando’s wife, Eva. The asphyxiation sex thing bucked a lot of readers out of the saddle but Baker tones down the perversity replacing it with light metaphor. There’s still a collar and placcy bag under the bed but it’s representative of adult sex, which, like uncharted ocean waves, is another thing Pikelet is tempted by but unprepared for.
Ultimately Pikelet says no to Sando, the student surpasses the guru. So while Loonie hurls himself towards oblivion, Pikelet shows moral courage, taking a tentative first step towards knowing thyself - another way of being extraordinary.
The plotline of Breath intersects with other events, real and fictional. The film comes on the back of a new book and speaking tour by Winton addressing toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity was largely unheard of in 2008 when Breath first came out, though it’s specifically addressed in Winton's latest book The Shepherd's Hut.
Breath is a gentler take on similar themes of wayward masculinity. And if viewed in this context then there’s an open-ended discussion to be had about Sando’s role in Pikelet’s decision and Loonie’s demise.
Or you can simply enjoy Breath as a beautiful coming of age drama with incredible scenery and wholly believable surfing scenes, because it’s all those things too.
Breath opens in cinemas May 3rd