Swimming Upstream

Based on the autobiographical novel by Australian swimmer Tony Fingleton and directed by Russell Mulcahy, this '50s-era inspirational story of surviving family dysfunction is oddly soft given that alcoholism, poverty and the poisonous legacy of child abuse figure so prominently. The second of five children born to seething Brisbane dockworker Harold Fingleton...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Based on the autobiographical novel by Australian swimmer Tony Fingleton and directed by Russell Mulcahy, this '50s-era inspirational story of surviving family dysfunction is oddly soft given that alcoholism, poverty and the poisonous legacy of child abuse figure so prominently. The second of five children born to seething Brisbane dockworker Harold Fingleton (Geoffrey Rush) and his long-suffering wife, Dora (Judy Davis), studious and musical Tony (Mitchell Dellevergin) is regularly pummeled by his older brother, Harold Jr. (Kain O'Keefe) and belittled by his father. The way to Harold's heart is through sports, and Tony doesn't measure up. But the Fingleton siblings love the municipal pool, a cool refuge from the brutal summer heat, and Tony and his younger brother John (Thomas Davidson) have a real talent for swimming. Once their dad finds out, he redirects his energies into making them champions, subjecting the boys to punishing practice sessions and relentless psychological pressure. For no apparent reason, Harold favors John over Tony to such a degree that Tony's trophies are neglected while John's are enshrined in the living room beneath a photograph so reverential that it resembles a religious icon, and deliberately pits the boys against each other. As teenagers, Tony (Jesse Spencer) and John (Tim Draxl) rise through the ranks of Australian amateur competitions as the embittered, often unemployed Harold slides into alcoholism. When Tony starts to outshine John, the stage is set for bitter family discord. To his credit, Fingleton strongly evokes the dilemma of a child who simultaneously loves and hates his father, and takes pains to locate the roots of Harold's cruelty in his own childhood as the son of an alcoholic prostitute who eventually abandoned him to an orphanage. And its suggestion that education is more important than athletics seems as radical now as it obviously did then to Harold. While Rush and the luminous Davis contribute powerful, nuanced performances as the senior Fingletons, the younger generation are little more than the sum of their skills. Youngest brother Ron (Craig Horner) and baby sister Diane (Brittany Byrnes) — who grew up to be Queensland's first female chief magistrate — scarcely register at all. Unwilling or unable to dig deeply enough into the characters' tormented psyches, Fingleton turned his own story into a feel-good fable; neither Martin McGrath's gorgeous cinematography nor the hypnotic score by RUN LOLA RUN (1998) composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil's can compensate.

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: Based on the autobiographical novel by Australian swimmer Tony Fingleton and directed by Russell Mulcahy, this '50s-era inspirational story of surviving family dysfunction is oddly soft given that alcoholism, poverty and the poisonous legacy of child abuse… (more)

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