Swimming Upstream


Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by:Anthony Fingleton
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer, Tim Draxl, David Hoflin, Craig Horner
Released: February 27, 2003
Grade: B+

Adapted from his autobiographical novel, Swimming Upstream tells the story of Tony Fingleton's childhood and his quest to win both swimming medals and his father's love.  Born and raised in Brisbane, Tony (played by Jesse Spencer), and his older brother, John (Tim Draxl), excelled in the swimming pool.  Their father, Harold (Rush), was oblivious to their talent as he was either working as a wharfie down at the docks, or getting blindly drunk in a pub somewhere.

On hearing from his wife, Dora (Davis), that they could swim, he suddenly developed an interest in them.  He began personally training them but not solely for their own interests.  Harold wanted to become someone and this was his chance to live a dream - he could be the father of the greatest swimmer of all time.

The Fingleton's were a broken family where arguments were common and fights usually followed.  There was an unspoken division in the family with Harold the primary cause.  He developed a favoritism with John since he offered the least resistance.  Tony was on the outer and despite developing a loving bond with his mother, was looked upon as dirt by his father.

Both John and Tony would go on to become great swimmers.  They would compete in the Queensland titles and Australian titles in the 1950s.  But Tony was battling more than just the other competitors.  His father was doing everything in his power to make sure John was the better swimmer - he was giving him secret extra training sessions, finding him media exposure, and offering the devoted encouragement that Tony wasn't allowed.

If you’re old enough, you may remember how this story ended but if not, I won’t ruin the experience.  This isn't just a sporting flick but rather a touching family drama that will stir emotions.  Geoffrey Rush's brings much hate to his character which is just what the story requires - he's a classic bad guy yet somehow realistic.  People will recognise Jesse Spencer from Neighbours and he shrugs off his “Billy Kennedy stereotype” by savouring this first opportunity to appear in a noteworthy feature film.

Shot entirely in Brisbane in late 2001, those from the area will identify some of the locations.  Director Russell Malcahy’s best scenes are those in the swimming pool with his split-screen camera technique.  I first saw the film back in September 2002 when it was screened for Australian Film Institute members.  Disappointingly, the film was overlooked in the best picture category but received worthy nominations for actors Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis alongside a screenplay nomination for Tony Fingleton.

Following the release of Far From Heaven and The Hours, you’ve now got the chance to see three separate films set in the 1950s.  As they say, when you hang on to things long enough they come back in style.  The nifty fifties have returned.