Judge Diane Wild finds that swimming upstream is much more efficient exercise than swimming in calm water.
The pride of a nation. The heart of a champion. The true story of Tony Fingleton.
Despite its familiar theme of athletic prowess and determination helping a man rise above his inauspicious beginnings, and its PG-13 rating, this Australian production is not a feel-good family film. It is a story of triumph glued together with harrowing shots of domestic violence and dysfunction.
Facts of the Case
Harold Fingleton (Geoffrey Rush, Quills) is the drunken, abusive father to five children, including sensitive Tony (Jesse Spencer, House, M.D.), brutal older brother Harold Jr. (David Hoflin), and younger brother John (Tim Draxl). When he's not intimidating his wife Dora (Judy Davis, My Brilliant Career), he's pitting his children against each other in a fight for his affections. Though Harold Jr. earns his father's approval by being tough and excelling at boxing and football, Tony's gentle manner and piano skills fail to impress. When Harold notices that Tony and John have swimming talent, he begins coaching them obsessively, and while Tony never wins his dad's love, he eventually, grudgingly, earns his respect.
The voiceover narration of Swimming Upstream tells us what the movie should show, starting off with the explanation that young Tony was always afraid of his father and could never connect with him. Ugly scenes of domestic violence are juxtaposed with the serenity and excitement of swimming, effectively showing that Tony uses swimming as his escape, though it also ends up bringing him further into his father's vicious mind games.
Intrusive direction and camera tricks add little to the atmosphere of the film, and there are some laughable effects that attempt to provide a surreal touch to this mostly straightforward film. The plot has its clumsy foreshadowing moments, too, particularly in the relationship between Tony and John. When John says "You know I'll never hurt you," you know exactly what the film is leading to. That is, if you didn't read the DVD case, which details the plot from beginning to end.
The plot itself is unsurprising and not the most compelling thing about this emotional story, but there is also little drama in the swimming scenes. They are choppy and not presented as nail-biting races, possibly because, as Jesse Spencer points out in the featurette, Fingleton's prowess at backstroke—face exposed to the cameras—meant that the filmmakers didn't resort to body doubles in the race scenes.
Swimming Upstream is a look at a father through his young son's eyes, and it suffers somewhat because of the too-close, too-young perspective. There are brief attempts to explain the father's behavior, rooted in a traumatic childhood, and to show his efforts to overcome his alcoholism, but Harold ends up being just plain unlikable, and his extraordinary dislike of Tony is given the too-simplistic explanation that he's not tough enough. Davis gives a fine performance as the stoic mother, but her character seems patched together with disconnected scenes, from sly to spirited to suicidal. What's missing is a reason to care about these characters beyond pity.
It's such a familiar story, it needs to be elevated by something else. It has fine acting and a good sense of time and place, but the plot and characters, while decent, aren't enough to raise this beyond an interesting diversion.
The extras are paltry, with 20 minutes of deleted scenes that would have slowed the pace of this already leisurely film to a crawl, and a featurette that has interviews with the filmmakers and cast as well as the real Tony Fingleton.
Technically, the DVD is slightly limited by its source print, which betrays poor lighting in some scenes, but is otherwise an excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer with good colors, fine detail, and only the rare artifact marring it. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is excellent as well, rendering the score beautiful, though the surrounds are underused in this dialogue-oriented film.
The film plays slightly like revenge against a cruel father, and while he seems to deserve it, I'm not sure the audience does. I longed for more depth, more of a character study of Tony or the father or both, but Swimming Upstream is afraid to take the plunge into the deep end. More depressing than inspiring, and without a lot to add to its theme of triumph over adversity, Swimming Upstream is still worth a rental for the compelling performances alone.
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Scales of Justice
• "Swimming Upstream: The Making of a Champion" Featurette
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