Film & Television

‘Breath’: rehearsing masculinity on the waves

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Simon Baker adapts Tim Winton’s coming-of-age novel for his directorial debut

When Tim Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, was released in March, he departed from the traditional book launch with a series of keynotes on the topic of “toxic masculinity”. “Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures,” said Winton, “to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean.”

Winton described the culture on the ocean’s swell, where each evening several male generations commune in the lulls between waves. These boys “rehearsing their masculinity” could be any of the suffering surfers who’ve populated the littoral author’s writing since he won the Vogel in 1981. Yet it feels jarring to recast Winton’s melancholic characters in the parlance of contemporary feminism – say, Lockie Leonard from the ’90s YA novels or Vic Lang of short story collection The Turning (2004) – who often seem frozen in their time.

None are more emblematic of these latent tender hearts than Bruce Pike and Ivan Loon from the Miles Franklin-winning novel Breath (2008), both trying on postures of macho bravado. Simon Baker’s faithful new screen adaptation makes what Winton calls the “shackle[s of] misogyny” plain. Best known for his lead acting role in long-running US police procedural The Mentalist (2008–2015), Baker’s directorial debut is a nostalgic portrait of two boys floundering on the precipice of a dangerously adult world.

We meet “Pikelet” and “Loonie” (played by real-life grommets Samson Coulter and Ben Spence) wrestling in the water with a tactile affection soon to be expunged. Any misconception they’re on the cusp of manhood is struck out by the sight of their fragile bodies – these are the lithe limbs of children, more likely to grow up to be the skinny ratbags of Rennie Ellis’ 1984 Life’s a Beach series than the bronzed Adonis of Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937).

Winton’s writing has tended to make for middlebrow cinema, most recently in the underwhelming 2013 anthology film The Turning. Phillip Noyce, who eventually abandoned an adaptation of Dirt Music, claimed that “a poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie”. Baker is better than most at capturing the original novel’s mood – with an adult Pikelet narrating his bygone youth – but the film’s alignment of the liminal shoreline with adolescence is a familiar trope of Australian cinema. Here it’s more the subterranean menace of Blackrock (1997) than the kitsch critique of Puberty Blues (1981).

Cinematographer Marden Dean renders an eternal coastal winter, with sand-weathered clapboard houses washed out in hazy blues and yellows. Beyond the break lies an escape from small-town tedium, whether it’s Pikelet’s “ordinary” parents (played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) or the covert fury of Loonie’s father (Jacek Koman). In quiet moments the boys’ legs jiggle manically, thrumming with the pent-up energy of puberty. Surfing becomes an extension of their intensifying competition, with the reckless Loonie urging Pikelet out into deeper waters.

Soon they’re taken under the wing of Sando (played by Baker himself, with charm and vague threat), an experienced surfer who braves the waves others cower at: Old Smoky, Barney’s, and the mythic Nautilus. Sando grows larger in the boys’ adulation, relishing the role of briny mage, expounding half-baked philosophies ripped from the pages of surfer’s bible Tracks about living in the moment and surrendering to the water. “You’re completely alive. It’s just like you felt the hand of God,” he tells his audience of two. “That’s fucken’ hippie shit,” says Loonie, who tries to pretend he’s not under Sando’s spell. Sando soon plays the boys off against one another, using his fickle approval to rupture their bond.

The sighs of Sando’s wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) imply she knows this routine well. Flaxen haired and stormy, she’s blurred around the edges. Her secret lies in a mangled leg, a heavy symbol of her woundedness that she’s forced to lug around. There’s some half-hearted attempts to colour her in: a frustrated athlete with just as many yearnings as the boys around her. It’s tempting explain away her haziness as symptomatic of Pikelet’s limited vision, but surely the grown man looking back could see her sharper details.

Dare we compare Eva to the ocean: mercurial, quicksilver, her siren song luring Pikelet to perilous depths? The freedom bestowed by woman and water come at a cost, the longing to escape urging the boys on towards annihilation. Eros and Thanatos, desire and death, and all that. Water cinematographer Rick Rifici shows waves exploding into inverted mushroom clouds beneath the surface, sucking young limbs under with all the ocean’s wrath.

There’s divinity in the waves, too, which we know because a celestial beam literally parts the clouds to bless them. Breathtaking aerial shots of these boys in motion are the closest they’ll ever get to transcendence, captured with all the wonder of surf classics like Morning of the Earth (1972). Looking down the wave’s magnificent face, there’s genuine suspense when the boys’ skinny frames disappear into a curling barrel and we don’t yet know if they’ll emerge on the other side. “Never had I seen men do something so beautiful,” says Pikelet.

Breath charts the fork in Pikelet and Loonie’s road, where their lives could’ve taken a different turn if only somebody noticed them. Baker clearly sees grace in these lost boys, in their inchoate longings for something more. In his recent speeches Winton said that this is the first step towards dismantling toxic masculinity – to find such boys “worthy of our interest”. It’s ironic that when Baker does so, Eva is invariably drowned out.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

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