Swimming Upstream

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner8/06/2005

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 97 mins

Engaging, frequently moving drama with impressive performances from its cast.

Directed by Russell Highlander Mulcahy, Swimming Upstream is one of those “based on a true story” movies about overcoming adversity on the way to success. However, despite the fact that the movie is written by its main subject, you still feel that it could have gone a little bit deeper.

The Story

The film is set in Brisbane, Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s. It tells the story of Tony Fingleton (Jesse Spencer), a young boy who overcame a tough home life to become an Australian swimming champion. Despite the support of his loving mother Dora (Judy Davis), Tony is constantly bullied by his violent, alcoholic father Harold (Geoffrey Rush).

To make matters worse, Harold clearly favours his other four children and Tony’s at a loss to understand why. Even when Tony’s swimming talent blossoms, his father remains stubbornly unsupportive, despite pushing him to succeed. He even secretly pits Tony’s own brother (Tim Draxl) against him at a national level.

The Performances

The performances are superb, with Rush continuing his run of utter bastards after playing Peter Sellers last year. Harold is thoroughly unsympathetic and although the script does hint at a possible reason for his behaviour, there’s no last minute redemption scene. This is unusual in this sort of film and it makes you wonder whether we’re getting the whole story. (We’re also denied the obligatory Kennedy assassination reaction scene, despite the fact that Kennedy is frequently referenced throughout).

Jesse Spencer’s performance starts badly (he’s hampered by having to follow Mitchell Dellevirgin, the better actor who plays Fingleton as a child) but he grows on you throughout the film despite his irritating ‘pretty boy’ looks and his slightly unnerving passivity. He’s ably supported by Judy Davis (excellent as always) as well as the other actors playing his siblings – a touchingly understated scene between Tony and Harold Jnr, his previously bullying older brother, is a particular highlight.

The Highlights

The swimming sequences are excitingly filmed, if a little repetitive. Mulcahy keeps things moving through inventive use of split-screen, close-up and a suitably tense score, although it’s hard to tell just who’s winning the various races until they end.

There are several good scenes and individual moments. Highlights include: a painful-to-watch scene where Harold encourages Harold Jnr to beat up Tony in a boxing match; Tony’s response to a trash-talking competitor (“I’ve been psyched out by experts”); and an unintentionally amusing scene that may form the basis of pub-based Geoffrey Rush impressions for years to come, with his growling delivery of the line, “You threw it all away, like a mongrel DOG!”

The Conclusion

In short, Swimming Upstream is a moving drama that’s ultimately worth seeing for the performances of Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis, even if you feel that you haven’t quite heard the full story. For example, Fingleton later went to Hollywood and wrote Drop Dead Fred, but sadly the end credits neglect to mention this bizarre fact.

Film Trailer

Swimming Upstream
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Content updated: 21/11/2019 23:29

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