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Swimming Upstream
Swimming Upstream
Actors: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer, Tim Draxl, Deborah Kennedy
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Genres: Drama
PG-13     2005     1hr 54min

As the target of his father Harold's (Geoffrey Rush) drunken abuse, young Tony Fingleton (Jesse Spencer) escapes to the underwater solitude of the local pool, where he aspires to win his father's love by becoming a n...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer, Tim Draxl, Deborah Kennedy
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Creators: Andrew Mason, Anthony Fingleton, Carol Hughes, Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin, Diane Fingleton
Genres: Drama
Sub-Genres: Family Life
Studio: © 2005 MGM Home Entertainment, LLC
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 05/31/2005
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 1hr 54min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

A little seen 3 1/2 star gem | Venice, CA United States | 06/07/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"I guarantee that you have not heard of "Swimming Upstream". This is a shame. Although it is not a great film, it deserves a larger audience.

Harold Fingleton (Geoffrey Rush, "Shine", "Quills") is an abusive, alcoholic father. His wife, Dora (Judy Davis, "Husbands and Wives") seems to put up with it, to keep their family of four boys and one daughter together. Trying to eke out a living on the docks, Harold frequently spends what money he makes on beer and leaves the family to fend for themselves. The oldest son, Harold Jr. is the light of his father's eye. Good at football, Harold is proud of Jr. and makes no effort to hide the fact that he favors the one son. The other sons then compete for their father's attentions. One day at the pool, Harold realizes that two of his sons are quite good. Tony has an amazing backstroke and John is a great freestyle swimmer. Harold switches his attentions to John and begins coaching them both, pushing them to become better. Five years later, the two boys are entering competitions and still looking for their father's approval. Tony (Jesse Spencer) is becoming quite a force on the junior competition circuit and will probably win. John (Tim Draxl), a year younger, is still the apple of his father's eye, but has conflicting feelings about his relationship with his brother, Tony.

Based on a true story, "Swimming Upstream", directed by Russell Mulcahy, is a riveting story. At times it becomes a little soap opera-ish, but the force of the performances helps the film stand out.

No film starring Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis is going to be bad. Both people are amazing actors and take these roles by the reins and ride them for all they are worth. Rush plays Harold Fingleton, a real bastard. Working sporadically, he often comes home drunk and his mood changes on a dime. He will either love his wife or get mad and start hitting her. A difficult childhood is alluded to, but not really explored, as the reason for his behavior. What makes the performance so good is that Rush goes at it full tilt. He wants to portray the man for all he was, holding nothing back. There is never a point that we actually like him, and I believe that this would be the case if we actually met the man. Also, despite the fact that he is such a cruel father, we understand why each of the boys is starving for his attention and admiration. You starve for something you never receive. He was also devious, as he works to pit the two brothers against one another.

Judy Davis is one of the best actors working today. She always creates believable characters that come to life, losing herself in the role. As the abused wife, Dora, Davis makes us understand why she would stay with this jerk for so long. And that's important, because he is really a horrendous being. She has loved him in the past. She loves her kids and wants them to have a relatively stable home, despite all of the problems. She is a multi-dimensional character. A wrenching moment comes late in the film when she realizes that one of the kids is about to make a decision that he needs to make, but she doesn't want him to make.

Jesse Spencer, who plays Tony, is also quite good. He has matinee idol looks and can act, traits which usually translate into a long career as a superstar. He portrays Tony's conflicting feelings about his father quite well. Through the story, we see him grow; become stronger and less reliant on a kind word from his father. As his confidence grows, Harold realizes that he doesn't have the control over him that he once had, which causes him no small amount of consternation.

Russell Mulcahy, who directed the first two "Highlander" films, "The Real McCoy" and "The Shadow" in the early 90s, has been concentrating on television work recently. During parts of "Swimming", this shows. Some of the more abstract sequences, meant to convey the feelings of a particular character are a little overwrought. For instance, in one scene, Tony feels that he is "drowning under pressure"; therefore Mulcahy shows his floating in a swimming pool, completely clothed, with a light shining down on him from above. Yawn! Thankfully, these scenes are few and far between.

Mulcahy is better at showing all of the action in a swimming meet. As the first match begins, he switches between shots of the Fingleton family and the action in the pool. Then he begins splitting the screen into quadrants, showing Tony about to launch from his starting point in one frame, a shot of Harold eagerly watching, a shot of Dora very anxious, and another shot of another angle of Tony. This technique continues through the swim meets, showing us different aspects of the action. This may seem more obtrusive than it actually is. This technique, which is technically a montage, but ramped up to another level, the uber-montage, helps to keep the action moving, showing all of the different things as they happen during these sequences.

This film was released in theaters a couple of months ago, playing for little more than a week. The film was actually made in 2003, yet MGM decided to release it in 2005? The film is based on the story of Tony Fingleton, a real swimmer and member of the Australian swim team in the early 60s. Maybe I'm crazy, but wouldn't it seem natural to release the film either before or after the 2004 Summer Olympics, and capitalize on all of the press surrounding Michael Phelps and the swimming events? MGM didn't do this and the film found almost no audience during it's theatrical release.

Hopefully, you will find this film (it is available on Netflix) and help this little gem in the rough find a belated audience of admirers.
Survival of the Fittest
Vince Perrin | Stockton, CA USA | 12/06/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Any film with Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis in a true sports story of family dysfunction and child abuse recommends itself, and after finding its backstroke this one clocks in a winner. The two sets of actors who play their three sons as youngsters and young men are attractive athletes who actually can act. One son, Australian Olympic swimmer Tony Fingleton, advised the director and spared no one: the unloving father, the mother who enables his cruelty, and the bullying elder brother. The sons excel at swimming to escape their father's verbal, emotional and physical abuse, only to be forced by him to compete against each other.

Fingleton's story is inspiring. Watching it is another matter. It upends our notions of family and argues for the licensing of parents. The demons that fuel the father's personality disorder are hinted at; the mother's weak protests only stoke her husband's behavior. Their sons seek love and approval, only to have it rejected. Rush and Davis brilliantly convey the parents' inability to change their ways. Jesse Spencer's physical prowess, as the swimmer who survives, is as impressive as his acting in a part that will flutter a few hearts in and out of the pool.

There are some amazing flourishes, not the least of which is how the director shoots the swimming meets, splitting the screen into two to four frames that show all aspects of the race, his camera moving fluidly above and below water. He also moves directly into scenes of family discord knowing that these real people are still alive and remember. "Swimming Upstream" has the courage of convictions that are as relevant today as in the 1960s. It is a painful and powerful picture to watch."
Staying Afloat
G. Bestick | Dobbs Ferry, NY USA | 10/17/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"With first-rate performances by two bankable stars and a well-crafted, emotionally honest story line, it's a mystery why this movie blipped so quickly in and out of the theaters.

Swimming Upstream is based on the real-life story of Tony Fingleton, a young Australian swimmer, but the film is much more than a feel-good tale of Tony's aquatic triumphs. It's about the desperate attachments of a dysfunctional family, and in particular, Tony's struggles to win the love and approval of Harold, his emotionally damaged father.

Harold (Geoffrey Rush) had a rough childhood during the Depression, and saw too much too soon. He becomes a hard-drinking dock worker who takes out his resentments on his long-suffering wife Dora (Judy Davis) and their five children. Harold is particularly tough on Tony (Jesse Spencer). He won't acknowledge Tony's accomplishments, and takes a particular delight in pitting Tony in competitions against his brothers, especially his brother John, also an accomplished swimmer.

With a huge assist from his mother, Tony transmutes the trauma of his home life into a mental toughness that serves him well in school and in the pool. After winning national championships in Australia, he gets a swimming scholarship to Harvard, and takes himself off to America and a better life. Tony's major triumph isn't winning swim meets or scholarships, though; it's finding the inner strength to not become bitter and emotionally callous himself.

Director Russell Mulcahey serves up engrossing, occasionally wrenching domestic scenes, and injects excitement into the swim meets by focusing on the family tensions the competitions generate - there's so much more at stake for Tony than simply winning a backstroke race. In lesser hands, the story might have become mawkish, but Rush and Davis in particular deliver beautifully nuanced performances. Rush gives us reasons to pity a detestable man, and Davis shows us a steely strength that makes Dora more than a victim.

This film will hopefully find a second life in the DVD channels and reach the wider audience it deserves.

"You have to use what's in your head!"
M. J Leonard | Silver Lake, Los Angeles, CA United States | 06/04/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Australian director, Russell Mulcahy got his start producing MTV style music videos for new wave rock bands back in the early eighties. His intensely overt visual style, and his fondness for slick, flashy flair made him one of the darlings of the international pop-culture set. In his new film, Swimming Upstream, you can see Mulcahy's imaginative flamboyance at work, with varying degrees of success.

In adapting Australian swimmer, Anthony Fingleton's memoir, Mulcahy has tried to balance the story of the triumph of a sporty underdog with a melodrama of a dysfunctional father-and-son relationship. He does this fairly successfully, but the problem is that in the end, his overwrought MTV-ready visual style obscures any real dramatic heft to the story of the young swimmer.

Mulcahy's split-screen, techno-scored manner of presenting Tony's swim races could have been effective - that is, if he didn't use the style in the exact same way over and over again; something's wrong when these would-be exciting sequences are predictable right down to the rhythms of the edits and image wipes, complete with overused fantasy scenes and pulsating contemporary dance music.

The story is set in 1950s-60s Queensland (which makes the use of the modern techno-music even stranger). Tony (Jesse Spencer) is a sensitive, talented piano-playing boy whose gruff and angry father Harold (a brilliant Geoffrey Rush) relentlessly ridicules him for not being manly enough. His older brother Harold Jr. is a bullying lout, so Tony spends his days hanging out at the local pool with his younger brother John (Tim Draxl).

Harold is a working class dockworker whose behavior alternates between alcoholic and abusive, while their Mother, Dora (a terrific Judy Davis) tries to protect them from his unpredictable and erratic violent episodes. One afternoon at the local pool, Harold sees his sons' swimming and realizes that the pool is the one place his book-loving son can excel and, by extension, bring glory to himself.

Tony soon matures into a regional-champion backstroker. But Harold remains strangely unaffected by his success, preferring to lose himself in drink than fully support his son's efforts to become Australia's national champion. Tony, however, is able to rise above his father's disconsolate ways, constantly coming to the aid of his beat-up and battered mother.

When Harold, with devilish glee, pushes John to vie with Tony for swim medals, Tony can't fathom how his best friend has been turned into a rival by their dad. As the story enters the '60s, the brothers' bond dissolves in the water and an angry, embittered competitiveness results. Tony competes in the Empire Games but John, his father's favourite, wants the glory too.

Rush and Davis are absolutely extraordinary in their roles, with Davis the perfect mix of the vulnerable and the feisty; her matriarch is sympathetic, compassionate, and beautifully shaded. Rush is in top form as Harold; he drunkenly bellows at the top of his lungs, and spews hateful slurs at his devoted and committed son. Scenes of Harold verbally abusing Tony alternate with even more harrowing sequences of Harold beating up on Dora who remains absolutely steadfast in her support of Tony.

The problem is that there's not much of an attempt to shed any possible insight as to why Harold hates Tony so much - the reasons are hinted at but ultimately get swallowed up somewhere in the narrative. Consequently, the story at times unwittingly feels like two separate movies: One of Harold's and Dora's dysfunctional, abusive marriage, and the other, of Tony's efforts to become a championship swimmer.

The recreation of Australian detail is excellent, but Swimming Upstream is mostly worth watching for Rush and Davis, who are undoubtedly two of the best actors working today. It's just a pity that the movie doesn't exercise more emotional heft and play out more like a straight biopic, because a story such as this deserves a much better treatment than Mulcahy is willing to give it. Mike Leonard June 05.