I guarantee that you have not heard of “Swimming Upstream”. This is a shame. Although it is not a great film, it deserves a larger audience.
Harold Fingleton (Geoffrey Rush, “Shine”, “Quills”) is an abusive, alcoholic father. His wife, Dora (Judy Davis, “Husbands and Wives”) seems to put up with it, to keep their family of four boys and one daughter together. Trying to eke out a living on the docks, Harold frequently spends what money he makes on beer and leaves the family to fend for themselves. The oldest son, Harold Jr. is the light of his father’s eye. Good at football, Harold is proud of Jr. and makes no effort to hide the fact that he favors the one son. The other sons then compete for their father’s attentions. One day at the pool, Harold realizes that two of his sons are quite good. Tony has an amazing backstroke and John is a great freestyle swimmer. Harold switches his attentions to John and begins coaching them both, pushing them to become better. Five years later, the two boys are entering competitions and still looking for their father’s approval. Tony (Jesse Spencer, TV’s “House”) is becoming quite a force on the junior competition circuit and will probably win. John (Tim Draxl), a year younger, is still the apple of his father’s eye, but has conflicting feelings about his relationship with his brother, Tony.
Based on a true story, “Swimming Upstream”, directed by Russell Mulcahy, is a riveting story. At times it becomes a little soap opera-ish, but the force of the performances helps the film stand out.
No film starring Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis is going to be bad. Both people are amazing actors and take these roles by the reins and ride them for all they are worth. Rush plays Harold Fingleton, a real bastard. Working sporadically, he often comes home drunk and his mood changes on a dime. He will either love his wife or get mad and start hitting her. A difficult childhood is alluded to, but not really explored, as the reason for his behavior. What makes the performance so good is that Rush goes at it full tilt. He wants to portray the man for all he was, holding nothing back. There is never a point that we actually like him, and I believe that this would be the case if we actually met the man. Also, despite the fact that he is such a cruel father, we understand why each of the boys is starving for his attention and admiration. You starve for something you never receive. He was also devious, as he works to pit the two brothers against one another.
Judy Davis is one of the best actors working today. She always creates believable characters that come to life, losing herself in the role. As the abused wife, Dora, Davis makes us understand why she would stay with this jerk for so long. And that’s important, because he is really a horrendous being. She has loved him in the past. She loves her kids and wants them to have a relatively stable home, despite all of the problems. She is a multi-dimensional character. A wrenching moment comes late in the film when she realizes that one of the kids is about to make a decision that he needs to make, but she doesn’t want him to make.
Jesse Spencer, who plays Tony, is also quite good. He has matinee idol looks and can act, traits which usually translate into a long career as a superstar. He portrays Tony’s conflicting feelings about his father quite well. Through the story, we see him grow; become stronger and less reliant on a kind word from his father. As his confidence grows, Harold realizes that he doesn’t have the control over him that he once had, which causes him no small amount of consternation.
Russell Mulcahy, who directed the first two “Highlander” films, “The Real McCoy” and “The Shadow” in the early 90s, has been concentrating on television work recently. During parts of “Swimming”, this shows. Some of the more abstract sequences, meant to convey the feelings of a particular character are a little overwrought. For instance, in one scene, Tony feels that he is “drowning under pressure”; therefore Mulcahy shows his floating in a swimming pool, completely clothed, with a light shining down on him from above. Yawn! Thankfully, these scenes are few and far between.
Mulcahy is better at showing all of the action in a swimming meet. As the first match begins, he switches between shots of the Fingleton family and the action in the pool. Then he begins splitting the screen into quadrants, showing Tony about to launch from his starting point in one frame, a shot of Harold eagerly watching, a shot of Dora very anxious, and another shot of another angle of Tony. This technique continues through the swim meets, showing us different aspects of the action. This may seem more obtrusive than it actually is. This technique, which is technically a montage, but ramped up to another level, the uber-montage, helps to keep the action moving, showing all of the different things as they happen during these sequences.
This film was released in theaters a couple of months ago, playing for little more than a week. The film was actually made in 2003, yet MGM decided to release it in 2005? The film is based on the story of Tony Fingleton, a real swimmer and member of the Australian swim team in the early 60s. Maybe I’m crazy, but wouldn’t it seem natural to release the film either before or after the 2004 Summer Olympics, and capitalize on all of the press surrounding Michael Phelps and the swimming events? MGM didn’t do this and the film found almost no audience during it’s theatrical release.
Hopefully, you will find this film (it is available on Netflix) and help this little gem in the rough find a belated audience of admirers.