Review by: Jack Foley | Rating:
THE true story of Tony Fingleton, an Australian swimmer from
a troubled family who beat the odds to become a champion, forms
the basis for Swimming Upstream, a gruelling family drama that
occasionally exists in shallow waters.
Despite being told from the perspective of Tony (Jesse Spencer),
the film doesn't just seek to concentrate on his swimming career,
but rather the turbulent relationship he endured with his father,
Harold (played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush).
As such, it functions as both an inspiring underdogs' tale and
a crushing urban drama, with the emphasis placed much of the time
on the conflict at home.
Tony was the second eldest of five brothers, who constantly strove
to win the respect of his overbearing father, a wharf labourer
with past demons, who was prone to heavy-drinking and violent
In spite of his sporting achievements, however, Harold seldom
embraced Tony, preferring instead to concentrate on the career
of his younger brother, John (Tim Draxl), and thereby stoke up
some unnecessary sibling rivalry.
The ensuing fallout is watched over by their adoring mother,
Dora (Judy Davis), who continually encourages Tony to develop
the strength of mind to overcome his father's bullying.
As a result, Tony went on to become
an Australian champion, winning medals, before travelling abroad
to pursue an education at Harvard University.
As notable an achievement as this was given the pressure he was
under, Russell Mulcahy's movie doesn's always do justice to the
triumph of Tony's spirit, preferring instead to spend too much
time with his father, Harold.
As such, it allows Geoffrey Rush a tremendous platform to showcase
his talent, but ends up being a rather one-sided view of Harold
that casts him wholly as the villain.
Little time is spent exploring the demons from Harold's past
(which are only alluded to), or explaining why he might feel so
unsupportive towards Tony, even though Rush does a credible job
of chronicling his battle against alcohol.
Likewise, it makes it harder for audiences to understand Dora's
long-standing devotion to her husband, no matter how well she
is portrayed by Davis - particularly given the frequent outbursts
of physical and emotional abuse she is forced to endure.
Spencer, too, struggles to make the right sort of splash as a
result of the film's desire to try and tell two stories at once,
frequently being reduced to an onlooker rather than the main focal
point of the story (despite the fact he is telling it).
The low-key ending may also leave audiences feeling a little
unfulfilled, given the harshness of what has come before.
Yet for all of its faults, Swimming Upstream does still manage
to convey its overriding message - that persistence pays off and
can overcome any obstacle.
So while it struggles to achieve the inspirational highs of Billy
Elliot and Chariots of Fire (to which it clearly aspires), Swimming
Upstream remains a suitably absorbing and extremely well-acted
family drama that is well worth wading into.
(Australia, 98 mins)