Victory Over Adversity
Based on the novel by Anthony Singleton and his sister Diane, Swimming Upstream tells the true story of Anthony (Tony) Fingleton, a young Australian man who somehow manages to become a champion despite the obstacles of living in turmoil with his family and his abusive alcoholic father.
Set in 1950s Brisbane, Australia, life is tough for Harold (Geoffrey Rush) and Dora (Judy Davis) Fingleton and their five kids, especially since Harold has a hard time keeping a job because of his love for the bottle. With little money for recreation, the kids take advantage of the local swimming pool, and soon Tony (Jesse Spencer) and his brother John (Tim Traxl) are swimming faster than anyone around them.
During his more sober moments, Harold becomes excited by the boys’ athletic abilities and starts coaching them. While Tony is a tad faster than John, it’s John that Harold takes to, often chastising Tony but verbally rooting John on.
Averting the bullying of their older brother, Tony and John bond at an early age. As they grow older, they succumb to manipulation from their father which distances them from each other. He even talks John into changing his swim stoke to the backstroke, the same as Tony’s. At first the boys are close, but as Harold becomes more abusive to Tony, John falls further under his thumb, and his dad talks him into competing against Tony in the state championships.
Swimming Upstream is about more than swimming. Director Russell Mulcahy strives to play up the emotional life this family led, but it endeavors to cover too much material and leaves gaps that are filled in repeatedly with moments in the pool.
In addition to the pure drama of the true story, it’s the performances that make the film compelling. Geoffrey Rush is such an incredible talent that, as in Shine, he can make us believe he is crazy, or as in this film, find him the pathetic and abusive husband and father. Harold’s drunken rages seem so sincere, it’s easy to loathe him.
Judy Davis (Deconstructing Harry) is marvelous as Dora, a woman with five children in the 50s who had little choice except to remain with her abusive husband. She tries to stay out of his way when he’s hitting the bottle, but often becomes his physical target as well. Davis handles this difficult role with assurance. She convinces us that she is a woman in the pits of despair who still manages to take on a positive persona in order to keep her children grounded.
Dora even encourages young Tony’s passion to play the piano, while his father is adamantly against such a sissy thing. However, when Tony finally realizes that winning swimming championships may be his only road to a better life, he pursues that dream with all his might.
Tony’s shot for Olympic gold is a surprise ending -- one made more poignant because this is a true story. Happily, Swimming Upstream reminds us that determination to triumph can overcome adversity.
(Released by MGM and rated “PG-13” for thematic material involving alcoholism and domestic abuse.)
Read Diana Saenger's reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.