The saturated truth
Last Breath. Directed by Alex Parkinson & Richard da Costa
A new film based on an incredible but true story of saturation divers in the North Sea will be in UK cinemas soon
You might have seen those blockbuster movies about fictional saturation divers in peril, like Pressure and Pioneer? Forget about them – for tension and emotional engagement, you deserve to see Last Breath. It’s not just based on a true story from 2012 set in the North Sea, it is that story.
It’s a “documentary thriller” about real divers, and I challenge you not to feel the pressure in every sense as its 86 minutes unfold. Also, if this was fiction, you probably wouldn’t believe it.
The world of sat divers is far removed from that of recreational divers, like “going into space but under water” as one of the divers puts it. It starts off with three men on board the DSV (diver support vessel) Topaz, wondering with which other two men they’ll be sharing a confined bell over the next month. Quite a consideration, when you think about it.
Two of the men, Duncan and David, are veterans and know each other; the other, Chris, is new to the team and keen to prove himself. Duncan was Chris’s mentor – or “Sat Daddy” – but David doesn’t know Chris. Duncan vouches for him.
Working on part of an oil pipeline 100m beneath the North Sea, 12 hours out from Aberdeen, the divers’ mission is routine – to remove and replace some pipework on an 11m-high structure called
a manifold. The surface conditions are rough, but not extreme by North Sea standards.
Then, suddenly, control of the 120m mothership is lost as its computer system goes down and the vessel is dragged away from the manifold below, with Duncan in the bell and Chris and David still out on the manifold, connected to the bell only by the umbilicals that provide them with breathing gas, water for heating and communications.
And then one of the umbilicals snags on the underwater structure, and troubles really start…
How the men variously react to their predicament as it rapidly gets ever more wildly out of control is fascinating – these aren’t actors, remember, and we know we’re learning something about how professionals behave in a crisis.
Divers, supervisors, the ship’s medic, Chris’s fiancee Morag and others speak with disarming frankness to camera along the way, usually dispassionate although sometimes it all gets too much for them, and their accounts of what happened are interspersed seamlessly with incredible archive and black-box underwater footage and underwater reconstructions.
Appeared in DIVER April 2019
When film-makers Alex Parkinson and Richard da Costa describe the film as pulse-quickening that’s an understatement, and the swelling music by Paul Leonard-Morgan serves it well in that regard.
I watched Last Breath as a screener on a laptop, which is always a sub-par experience, and would happily watch it again on a cinema screen.
Only one tiny gripe – subtitles are necessary sometimes to make the Mickey Mouse heliox voices of the divers comprehensible, but why use tiny condensed and tracked-out capital letters? They’re as hard to read fast as you can get.
I don’t intend to spoil your cinema experience by describing what happens any further, but you do need to see this film. It’s the first diving production of 2019 and it sets the bar high. It goes on general release in the UK on 5 April.
Buy DIVER Magazine to read an interview with the film’s directors Alex Parkinson and Richard da Costa and find out more about how ‘Last Breath’ was made.
Review by Steve Weinman