Swimming Upstream Review
Australia, the 1950s. Tony Fingleton (Jesse Spencer) was one of five children born to alcoholic docker Harold (Geoffrey Rush) and his put-upon wife Dora (Judy Davis). Whatever Tony does, he cannot find acceptance from his father, who always seems to prefer one of his older two brothers, particularly John (Tim Draxl), and considers Tony a “poofter” for liking poetry. But what Tony and John can do, is swim very fast. Harold is determined to make John the best young swimmer in Australia, making Tony even more determined to prove himself. A true story.
Written by the real Tony Fingleton from his book, Swimming Upstream wants to be a rousing triumph-against-adversity tale. The DVD cover invokes Billy Elliot and Chariots of Fire, but the gap between aspiration and fulfilment is never clearer during the hour and a half that Swimming Upstream claims of your time. Fingleton seems to lack any sort of distance from the material, as his screenplay has little in dramatic shape, and is so underwritten that it’s often hard to tell Tony and John apart, let alone those two and their older brother Harold Jr. The family conflicts play out in soap-operatic cliché terms. To make matters worse, Russell Mulcahy doesn’t seem to have any sort of handle on the material: the tone veers all over the place and Mulcahy resorts to showy trick shots, such as one scene shot from underneath a transparent floor. The swim race scenes are shot with an overuse of split screen and set to an anachronistic electronic score, but they don’t convey any excitement and sometimes it’s not even clear what’s happening. Swimming – especially backstroke – is not the most cinematic of sports in the first place, but this is no real solution. Australian Olympic champion Dawn Fraser – subject of her own biopic, 1979’s Dawn!, due a DVD release in July 2005 – is a minor character in the story.
However, Swimming Upstream has two trump cards, namely Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. They alone make this film worth a look, adding considerable dramatic weight and screen presence to their underwritten and stereotypical roles. This shows what great actors can do, even with flimsy material such as this. In contrast, Jesse Spencer and Tim Draxl, both blandness incarnate, are blown off the screen.
This review of a three-year-old film is being written to tie in with the film’s belated UK cinema release. Quite why someone is bothering to do that, when far better Australian films languish unreleased in any medium in Britain – I’ve reviewed several of them for this site – is beyond me.
Columbia TriStar’s DVD, which is encoded for Region 4 only, is a virtually bare-bones effort. However, the picture and sound quality are as good as they should be, considering how recent this film is. Colours are strong, blacks are solid and shadow detail is fine. The DVD is transferred in a ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Judging by eye, it would seem that 1.75:1 is the original cinema ratio, so nothing is lost here. I can’t fault this transfer.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. Considering the temptation to pump up the sound in a film like this, the track is commendably restrained, with the surrounds being mostly used for the music score and for some ambient sounds. The subwoofer fills in the bass parts of the music, but it doesn’t get much of a workout.
There are thirty chapter stops. There are no subtitles for the hard of hearing, which automatically loses the DVD a point – it’s not acceptable nowadays. There are no extras, except for trailers for other Columbia TriStar DVDs: Almost Famous, Centre Stage and Erin Brockovich.
Swimming Upstream might be a true story, but it makes for a distinctly underwhelming film. Rush and Davis give it a distinct touch of class it doesn’t really deserve. The DVD transfer is excellent, but otherwise the disc is pretty much bare-bones.