This article was corrected on Dec. 2, 2002.
One of those inspirational true stories about a youth who overcomes daunting obstacles to become a sports hero, “Swimming Upstream” is distinguished by some unusually fine performances, but the lack of a satisfactory third act diminishes overall result. Pic is getting one week of public screenings (sans press previews) in three cities in Oz to qualify for inclusion in the Australian Film Institute Awards, where it has nabbed five nominations, including Best Actor and Actress for Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. Given virtually no publicity, it’s unlikely audiences will patronize this half-hearted exposure, but a more extended theatrical release is promised in the New Year.
Screenwriter/exec producer Anthony Fingleton (“Drop Dead Fred,” “Blast From the Past”) is tapping into his own story here; based on the book he wrote in collaboration with his younger sister, Diane, it’s the autobiographical tale of how the siblings lived as youngsters in Brisbane in the ’50s and ’60s, when Tony became a swimming champ who could have been a contender in the backstroke at the 1964 Olympic Games. Much of the film revolves around the lad’s terrible relationship with his father, a bitter, violent alcoholic, superbly played by Geoffrey Rush.
Aided immensely by top-notch production design (Roger Ford) and costume design (Angus Strathie), pic evocatively recreates the somnolent, humid city of Brisbane some 50 years ago. Harold Fingleton (Rush) is a longshoreman who survived an appalling childhood (his mother was a prostitute); he’s married to the stalwart Dora (Judy Davis) and has fathered five children, four boys and a girl.
Long periods of unemployment in an era of unrest on the waterfront, plus his unhappy past, have driven Harold to drink. He spends hours at the pub, but there’s often not enough food for the family to eat, and he’s sometimes abusive to his wife.
Oldest son Harold Jr. (played by Kain O’Keefe as a boy and by David Hoflin as a teenager) takes after his dad; not too bright and a bully, he’s clearly going nowhere in life. However, Tony (Mitchell Dellevergin, Jesse Spencer) and John (Thomas Davidson, Tim Draxl) are good swimmers; together with their siblings, they have regularly sought to escape their domestic tension at the local pool, and the hours in the water have paid off. Harold, for barely explained reasons, has always preferred John to Tony, whom he sees as a weakling and a “poof,” mainly because the boy is musical. He encourages John in his swimming, hardly paying attention to Tony, who has the real talent.
By the late ’50s, the Fingleton boys are competing in contests all over Australia. It’s a great time for champion swimmers in Australia, with the young Murray Rose (Remi Broadway) and Dawn Fraser (Melissa Thomas) also competing; in a nice touch, the real Rose and Fraser make cameo appearances, with Fraser playing the swimming coach to her own character. But, despite Tony’s obvious prowess in the pool, Harold continues to support John, causing endless friction and pain for Tony.
Newcomers Spencer and Draxl register strongly as the brothers who love and admire one another and yet are forced into conflict by the irrational behavior of their father; both young actors could have big futures on the strength of their work here. The commanding thesping of Rush as the basically tragic father who spends much of his time in an alcoholic haze, and of Davis as the tragic wife desperately trying to keep her disintegrating family together, ensure that the lengthy domestic scenes are emotionally powerful. Director Russell Mulcahy, returning to feature filmmaking in his native Oz for the first time since “Razorback” (1984), doesn’t flinch from the pain of these sometimes violent confrontations, and he stages dynamic swimming scenes using a split-screen.
In the end, however, the film becomes repetitive and, given that Tony eventually opts for a scholarship at Harvard rather than a stab at the Olympics, the drama tends to peter out in the final reel. An earlier wrap-up would have been more dramatically satisfying. The odd inaccuracy also grates (the age of consent at the time was 21, not 18 as suggested here.)
Production values are uniformly tops, with particularly slick work from the Animal Logic digital visual effects team.