Magazine article Metro Magazine

Not Drowning: Swimming Upstream: Swimming Is the Sport the Rest of the World Most Closely Associates with Australia. It Has Long Held a Privileged Place within a National Psyche Fascinated by Sporting Heroics. Surprisingly, Apart from a Lacklustre Dawn Fraser Biopic, There Have Been Few Attempts to Capture This Relationship on Film

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Not Drowning: Swimming Upstream: Swimming Is the Sport the Rest of the World Most Closely Associates with Australia. It Has Long Held a Privileged Place within a National Psyche Fascinated by Sporting Heroics. Surprisingly, Apart from a Lacklustre Dawn Fraser Biopic, There Have Been Few Attempts to Capture This Relationship on Film

Article excerpt

Swimming Upstream (Russell Mulcahy, 2003) is set within the first golden age of Australian swimming in the late fifties and early sixties. Whilst it was the exploits of our runners, especially the women, who came to epitomize the local victories of the Melbourne Olympics, from that point on, the flag bearers of our Olympic and Commonwealth games' pride have been our swimmers. Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose (both of whom appear in cameos in the film) and the Konrads, were household names, with pop star status across the nation. The film retells the life story of one of the lesser-known lights of those golden times.

Tony Fingleton was Australia's 1961 100m-backstroke champion and the following year, at what was still called 'the Empire games' in Perth, he won a silver medal. The story of how and why he did not go on to compete at the 1964 Olympic games is in itself an intriguing strand of this narrative. The later trajectory of Tony's life has taken him on to a successful career as an expatriate stage and screenwriter, most recognizably as the scriptwriter and executive producer of Drop Dead Fred (Ate de Jong, 1991). He serves therefore in the unusual dual role of subject and writer of this film.

The Fingleton family grew up the hard way in post-war Brisbane. Parents Dora and Harold both bear the scars, in different ways, of surviving the Depression. Tony is the second of five children; Harold junior is his tormenting older brother, the ally and acolyte of their troubled father; John is closest to him in age and kinship, whilst the younger Ronald and Diane provide an ersatz Greek chorus.

In essence this is a family drama, within which the children navigate the push and pull dance of their parents: the stoic Dora, played with intricate angst by an in-form Judy Davis, and the dominating shadow of Harold Senior in a standout performance by Geoffrey Rush.

Rush grasps the opportunity to invert his 'Shine' role in playing a brutalized and brutalizing father. His dark descent into alcoholism pervades the filmic family and Rush's ability to deliver a highly nuanced character, as much tormented as tormentor, invokes both revulsion and sympathy.

Tony bears the brunt of his father's hostile disdain, until the day Harold realizes that both he and John are natural born swimmers. Seeing a chance at the validation denied him in his own life, both boys are quickly conscripted into a endless regime of training and competition. For the younger children, the local pool has long served as an escape and haven from a troubled home. For Tony and John it now becomes a possible path to salvation in their father's eyes, and beyond.

Filmed around the original Brisbane locales, many of the film's externals are clever and effective digital composites. Whilst Australian period pieces have usually relied upon the recreation of authentic streetscapes and vistas, this is a tale of two interiors. The tone of the film circles between the contrasting moods of pool and home. One vibrant, sharp and colourful, the other an increasingly claustrophobic twilight world. The house itself seems to shrink and darken as Harold and his family's torment intensifies. Mulcahy takes the unusual route of using one film crew but different editors to reproduce these two worlds. Watery motifs pervade the film, providing the most evocative cinematic moments. Curiously, the film's race sequences tend to lack compelling dramatic tension. In a rare case of art trailing life, we have now become acclimatized to such cinematically sophisticated Olympic games coverage, that the heavy use of split screen effect--a salute to the modalities of sixties film--fails to impact. We are mercifully spared the over reliance on slow-mo cinematic cliches that frequent such sequences, however the plethora of points of view draw us away from, rather than towards, the characters' experience of the events.

Unfortunately for Tony it is younger brother John who replaces Harold Jnr as the focus of his father's attentions and the tensions and twists this creates serve as the key strand in the unfolding drama. …

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