Swimming Upstream (2003) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and some violence
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer, Tim Draxl, David Hoflin, Mitchell Dellevergin, Thomas Davidson, Kain O'Keefe, Robert Quinn, Keera Byrnes
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Screenplay: Anthony Fingleton
Review published February 4, 2005

Swimming Upstream is based on Tony Fingleton's (Drop Dead Fred) autobiography (written with his sister, Diane) about his life growing up in Brisbane from a young boy to his late teenage years where he would become one of Australia's best backstroke swimmers.  It wasn't exactly an idyllic existence, with little money in the house and an abusive, alcoholic father that has a hard time accepting Tony as a son.  It's a coming-of-age tale of a boy doing everything he can to win his father's affection, but no matter how much he succeeds, it only seems to make matters worse.  Eventually, the father's drunken fits would threaten to tear the family apart.

Russell Mulcahy's (Highlander, Ricochet) film is an uneven work, scoring big from the very acute characterizations (Tony Fingleton also wrote the screenplay) and an air of authenticity, but sometime his own direction is downright weird to a fault.  The first instance is a scene where Tony, feeling a bit of anguish at being told his father is ashamed of him, floats in the air as if swimming underwater.  Similar "state of consciousness" scenes would emerge later for reasons only Mulcahy might be able to explain, such as a point of view shot as if looking up from the kitchen floor. 

For a film about swimming competitions, Mulcahy seems to realize that it is difficult to make the sport exciting to watch, because he spices each race up visually with split screen action depicting the individual competitors along with reaction shots of the Fingleton family as they root for their son or brother.  Although the film is set in the 1950s and 60s, Mulcahy employs the heavy thumping of electronic music, giving a very house-y feel that doesn't quite jibe with the simplistic nature of the story, and definitely detracts from the nostalgic vibe.

Thankfully, one thing Mulcahy doesn't muck about with are the performers, who are all excellent in their roles.  You expect great things from acclaimed thespians like Geoffrey Rush (Frida, Mystery Men) and Judy Davis (Gaudi Afternoon, Barton Fink) , and they meet or exceed your expectations here.  Also quite good are Jesse Spencer (Uptown Girls, Winning London) and Tim Draxl (Travelling Light, The Shark Net) as competing brothers Tony and John Fingleton, respectively, although they seem to get lost in the shuffle, as they have beefed up the Rush and Davis roles to accommodate their star power.

Oddly enough, the US released DVD version I watched clocked in at just over 90 minutes, although the I've found information that the theatrical versions clock in at 10 to 20 minutes longer, depending on which source you look at.  There are a plethora of deleted scenes to view on the DVD, so it looks like a hatchet job had been done on the film, which might explain why so many loose ends seem to be dangling by the time the credits roll  important things like why Tony's father never came to accept him are still left up in the air.  Swimming Upstream is certainly likeable and with strong performances by a solid cast, it makes for a good dysfunctional family drama worth noting.  However, the storytelling is only sporadically effective and Mulcahy's bizarre directorial decisions ultimately keep reminding us that there are far too many artificial elements in play for a film that is supposed to be about real-life events.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo