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SWIMMING UPSTREAM (article first published : 2003-11-8)

Released by Ster Kinekor, Swimming Upstream is an excellent Aussie drama based on a true story. It centres on a man's battle to become a swimming champ and win the attention and affection of his tough father.

It comes as quite a surprise to learn that the film was virtually snubbed at last year's Australian Film Awards ceremony. I say this because we have here not only a wonderful film, based on fact, but one of the 10 best movies of the past 12 months - a year in which we already have two other hits from Down Under on the same list: Lantana and Rabbit Proof Fence.

Directed by Russell Mulcahy, who gave us the altogether different Highlander films, Swimming Upsteam is set in 1950s Brisbane. It tells of the dreams and nightmares of a handsome and amiable lad, Tony Fingleton, and his three brothers and sisters. An impoverished lot, they lived through a harsh childhood with their hard-working, long-suffering mother, Dora (Judy Davis), and their moody, complex, hard, tyrannical, alcoholic father, Harold, an often unemployed wharf-hand played by Geoffrey Rush.

Young Tony (handsome Jesse Spencer of television's Neighbours) longed for two things in life. One was to crack it big as a backstroke swimming champ, a talent tapped at an early age. The other was to win the attention and affection of a father he both loved and feared.

But Harold continually looked upon his second-eldest son, his wife's favourite, as weak; a sissy-boy. He went out of his way to fob off Tony's achievements, going so far as to almost relish turning brother against brother when he forced both Tony and the younger John (Tim Draxl) to compete for fame and his grudging affection.

Mulcahy's film, with the real Tony Fingleton providing the screenplay and executive producing, works well on three levels. It is not only an inspiring story of a man's tenacity to achieve his goal to become an Aussie champion, but also a complex examination of the relationship between a troubled teenager and his dysfunctional family. And it's a fine portrait of a damaged man trying to repair his ugly past by pushing his sons to try to accomplish something he never achieved.

Swimming Upstream is superbly acted and well-directed. Mulcahy splashes about some surreal moments which make stylish use of water as a metaphor for inner turmoil and the swimming scenes, delivered with impressive split-screen techniques, are as exciting as any sports broadcast.

It's a superb film that comes highly recommended. Rating: 9/10. - Billy Suter




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