Swimming Upstream
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Russell Mulcahy
scr Anthony Fingleton
with Jesse Spencer, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Tim Draxl, David Hoflin, Craig Horner, Brittany Byrnes, Mitchell Dellevergin, Thomas Davidson, Kain O'Keefe, Melissa Thomas, Remi Broadway
Australia 27.Feb.03, US 4.Feb.05, UK 10.Jun.05
03/Australia 1h37

Yes coach, no coach: Rush and Spencer

spencer rush davis

swimming upstream This is a superb true story about overcoming obstacles, but it's also clear that we're getting an extremely narrow perspective on it all.

Tony Fingleton (Spencer) was a 1960s Australian swimming champion whose home-life in Brisbane was extremely tough. His violent, alcoholic father (Rush) clearly favoured his other children over Tony, pushing Tony mercilessly to succeed in sport, then refusing to support him once his swimming talent blossomed. Tony's mother (Davis) tries her best to hold things together, but with this and more going on at home, Tony must find real inner resolve to make his way in life.

The strong subject matter and excellent performances make this film watchable, even though it struggles to break the surface. Spencer, Rush, Davis and the young actors who play the other Fingleton children are all excellent, never falling into stereotypes of the troubled-home genre. And Mulcahy directs the film with a straightforward style that cleverly illustrates each situation with occasional inventive visual flourishes (although the split-screen competition scenes are a bit repetitive). The film also captures the culture very nicely--the fragile machismo and difficult social climate of this time and place.

The problem is actually in Singleton's script, since he's clearly unable to see his own story with any perspective. It comes across as extremely simpleminded, giving us characters and situations we expect in a movie, but without the complexity of real life. Dad is bad, Mum's a saint--the only shadings are in the excellent performances. And he writes his own character with a curious lack of self-criticism; Tony is utterly innocent in all this, more of an observer in his own life than the central player.

But there's an even more important omission. The film not only fails to answer its focal question, it never asks it to begin with: Why was Dad so hard on Tony? By not grappling with this issue, it all feels rather pointless, like a undeveloped TV movie. We just don't expect the guy who lived this startling and gripping life to tell us about it in such a simplistic way.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 9.Dec.04

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... swimming upstream bob, Aust: 5/5 "I thought that It was an excellent movie which was a moving representation of the life of Tony Fingleton." (6.May.07)
2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall