When significant relationships in life come to an end, the truth of that situation tends to live with the two people involved. They may vent to friends and family after the fact, but no one really knows what happened except the two who were together, and now aren’t. Only those two souls are able to reconcile the fact that something that used to make them happy doesn’t anymore.
So imagine going through that process in a foreign country, where there’s nowhere to hide and only vast expanses of time in which to hash out what went wrong, why it did and how you could have fixed it. That’s where Learning To Breathe lives, and it’s about as painful as you might expect.
The film opens on Noah playing to a small but appreciative crowd, and he is approached by a beautiful stranger in the audience. This is Katrina, and after five minutes they’ve decided to go to Tobago together on a whim. We cut to years later, and Noah is trying to convince his now-girlfriend to go back to where they fell in love. We get the impression that life, work and the monotony of both have changed them in the intervening time, and the trip is an attempt to recapture that youthful spontaneity they once enjoyed.
Noah and Katrina aren’t the most obvious couple – he is some 15 years her senior and their meet-cute at the start of the film reads more like a mild stalker deciding to directly confront her ‘muse’ than anything out of a traditional rom-com. But as soon as we see them in Tobago, gently falling in love as they escape from their ordinary lives back home, they start to make sense. You’re left only to wonder what happened between then and now, and how it changed things so irrevocably.
The chemistry between them is most likely helped by the fact that Sam Hazeldine and Natalia Warner are a real-life couple, but the events of the film are very much from the mind of writer/director Dan Turner. In a brief Q&A following the screening, Turner revealed that Learning To Breathe recounts a very specific experience in his life, but even without this information, the authenticity shines through.
The film’s present-day narrative is interrupted only by brief flashbacks to the couple’s first time on the island, underlining the differences between young, burgeoning love and an actual relationship that has to contend with everyday pressures. It’s an exaggerated version of what a lot of couples go through. This time, rather than feeding off of their own recklessness, they find it impossible to escape the reality of their lives at home.
Some things don’t quite work as well as they should, such as the decision to introduce a friend for Noah at the start but to then ignore him until a strange point in the film. We’re supposed to infer that it’s been a while since they spoke but, in a film that focuses almost entirely on two characters, he just sticks out. Katrina isn’t fleshed out as much as she could be, either, with the film more often asking us to emotionally identify with Noah. Some early parts of the film also struggle to find a balance between the rose-coloured flashbacks and driving the present-day story forwards.
Yet the setting of Tobago looks gorgeous throughout, and makes the feat of creating a kind of romantic safety bubble around Noah and Katrina that much simpler. If the film has been set just anywhere – London, maybe, where the film begins and ends – it might not have had the same effect. It needs to be somewhere the two of them are isolated, where they only have each other.
By capturing the absurdity and abstract pain of a breakup, Learning To Breathe couldn’t be described as a particularly ‘fun’ watch, but it is a worthwhile one. With so many films documenting the start of a relationship, Learning To Breathe deserves praise for attempting to find the truth in the end of one.
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