EIFF 2013: ‘Breathe In’ is a compelling, quietly breathtaking drama

Breathe In Guy Pearce Felicity Jones

Breathe In
Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones
Directed by Drake Doremus
USA, 2013

Drake Doremus’s latest film, Breathe In, is a taut, emotional drama, starring Guy Pearce as a middle-aged high school music teacher who has never abandoned his dream of becoming a full-time musician. His character, Keith, is living in a state of continual but indifferent regret; despite having a loving wife (Amy Ryan), highly-achieving daughter (Mackenzie Davis) and beautiful house in upstate New York, he yearns for the exciting bohemian lifestyle of his youth, of which only his passion for music remains. The domestic inertia is broken when the family accept an English exchange student into their home, the 18-year-old piano prodigy, Sophie (Felicity Jones), who rekindles Keith’s romantic nostalgia and forces him to revaluate his responsibilities to his family and himself.

Breathe In Guy Pearce Felicity Jones

The effect that Sophie has on each member of the household is delicately handled, as she unwittingly draws out their weaknesses and chips away at the fault lines in their relationships. Her genuine interest in Keith’s orchestral ambitions stands in stark contrast to his wife’s continual jibes about his ‘hobby’ and her talents are far more interesting to him than his daughter’s swimming medals. Furthermore, Sophie is also at the stage of her life that Keith is looking back on, fearful of making any serious decisions because she knows that she might come to regret them. The film is at its best when dealing with the hopeless, agonising intimacy that builds up between then, when their natural barriers are faltering but still intact.

Breathe In has a romantic, melancholic atmosphere, enhanced by some beautiful, steady camerawork that makes good use of natural light. The setting has a dreary, isolated placidity, broken only by the occasional bursts of heavy rain. Doremus allows the plot to develop gradually, using restrained, economical dialogue, letting the consequences of every action reverberate in the minds of the audience before they are realised by the characters themselves. Necessarily, for a film that pins so much on the visceral power of music, Dustin O’Halloran’s classical score blends seamlessly with other compositions and is utilised smartly to add dramatic momentum and emphasise the intuitive connection that Keith and Sophie share.

The narrative loses its way towards the end, descending into melodrama at times, although it is almost worth it for the superbly edited crescendo. The resolution appears out of sync with the rest of the film and the characters lose some of their carefully established credibility. Amy Ryan is also underused as Keith’s wife, Megan; she is reduced to a fussy, restrictive, unsubstantial woman, which leaves certain plot points disappointingly ambivalent.

Despite these slight aberrations in the script, Breathe In is packed with emotional intensity. It is compelling and quietly breathtaking, for well over half its runtime, driven by immaculate performances from the two leads, whose characters forge a natural but devastating relationship. It is an uncomfortable, challenging film, a meditation on passion and responsibility, and a demonstration of the art of restraint.

Rob Dickie

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