Last breath

- Review by Patrick O’Donoghue

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In every human experience there are moments of the rarest kind in which real life becomes just as, if not more, cinematic than film itself. The perilous events that are the focus of the engrossing new documentary Last Breath unquestionably fit into this category of extraordinary moments. Last Breath recounts the true story of commercial deep sea diver, Chris Lemons, who, while working on an oil rig structure at the bottom of the merciless North Sea, is cut adrift from the security and solace of his diving bell when a freak occurrence causes his umbilical cord to snap. Equipped with nothing more than limited oxygen supplies designed to last only for a short space of time, Chris miraculously manages to survive, and is rescued against all odds thanks to a combination of sheer luck and the steely determination of his colleagues aboard the ship from which he originally dived, the Bibby Topaz.

This psychologically wearing, highly intense work skillfully marries the compelling action of a hair-raising, mini-catastrophe with a tender portrayal of the effect that the touch of such tragedies has on loved ones, and colleagues, who find themselves desperately powerless to averting them. Last Breath is an epic story of both literal and metaphorical redemption. The symbolism of being impossibly hauled from the murky depths that looked certain to become Chris’s watery grave, and ascending to a brighter tomorrow in which his hopes and dreams can be realised represents an almost textbook dramatic conception of being given a second chance at life.

Co-makers of the film, Alex Parkinson and Richard da Costa also provide a handful of exquisite sequences in which the audience gets a giddying sense of the weightlessness and serenity of dropping, as if in slow-motion, approximately 262 feet below sea-level. When searching for a description of how it feels to work under water, Mórag (Chris’s then fiancée and now wife) explains that Chris would always compare being submerged with ‘’going into space’’. This is a sensation that is captured beautifully by Parkinson and da Costa’s visual poetics which transform the disorientating nature of the diver’s lack of visibility into something closely resembling a strange, entirely alien world.

Upliftingly, the film’s conclusion treats us to joyful video footage of Chris and Mórag’s wedding day. During closing scenes like these, it is hard not to be struck by the extent to which every aspect of Chris’ personal life that previously brought him even one iota of happiness must now be heightened in their significance, following the calamitous incident that could have resulted in all of them being cruelly taken away forever. The lingering emotional trauma of Chris’s brush with death is something that may well have since inspired him to change his perspective on life in many respects, and to hold even tighter to feelings he previously neglected or took for granted, but, in the documentary’s gobsmacking parting twist, it is revealed that his adamantine desire to dive has remained resolutely unshaken, in spite of everything. Undeterred, the documentary’s denouement shows Chris once again climbing into the tin-can-like vessel that had once previously transported him to a hellish test of his will to survive and human spirit. As he descends the ladder, we hear the instruction relayed from the above control room, “Don’t fuck it up this time, Chris”. On account of his implacable passion for this most daring of day-jobs, maybe truly fucking things up in Chris’s case would, in fact, mean surrendering himself to the fear that doing what he loves could be the very thing that kills him.