Swimming Upstream (2003)

swimming_upstream poster

Director: Russell Mulcahy

Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer

First viewing, via DVD

A quarter of a century ago, Russell Mulcahy’s music video for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ became the first ever screened on MTV. As a music video director, Mulcahy helped define the form and helmed many of the medium’s most iconic, bombastic clips, including Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and a good portion of the Duran Duran catalogue. As a filmmaker, he’s best known for genre fare (action, sci-fi, horror), from Ozploitation gem Razorback and cult classic Highlander to recent episodes of TV’s Teen Wolf.

Suffice to say, when I think of Russell Mulcahy, I think of smoky visuals, dramatic backlighting and shafts of light, killer swine hating on humans, sword-fighting immortals decapitating each other, Christopher Lambert as a Scotsman, Sean Connery as an Egyptian, and Queen. A modest drama about sibling swimmers pressured into competition by an abusive, alcoholic father doesn’t spring to mind, but Mulcahy defies pigeonholing with Swimming Upstream.

Swimming Upstream is based on the autobiography of former swimmer Tony Fingleton, who serves as screenwriter. The film kicks off during Tony’s childhood growing up under a moody, negligent father (Geoffrey Rush) in a volatile, working class household held together by his resilient mother (Judy Davis). When Tony and his brother John show talent in the swimming pool, Harold takes an interest and trains them to be competitive swimmers. However, Harold favours John over Tony, creating an irrevocable rift between siblings and within the fragile family unit.

At first glance Mulcahy doesn’t seem an intuitive match for a biopic squarely focused on familial drama. The majority of his film work post-Razorback has been done overseas (though he helmed a well-regarded adaptation of Nevil Shute’s classic Australian novel On the Beach in the early noughties) and, as indicated above, his CV has been genre-centric. He’s sort of like a cheaper, pulpier Ridley Scott (or maybe an Antipodean Tony Scott, since the late director’s already a cheaper, pulpier Ridley Scott) and though I don’t subscribe to or take much stock in “style over substance” branding, I can see why he’s been slapped with that label. And yet Mulcahy proves a very fine fit for the material, curbing his more overt stylistic tendencies whilst also deploying his visual skill set to service and bolster the storytelling in ways not necessarily perceptible on first viewing.

Take, by way of example, the swimming sequences. Mulcahy uses panning shots, tracking shots, quick cutting, and so on to give the scenes energy and propulsion, where other directors wouldn’t necessarily have treated them with visual panache. Similarly, in scenes where Harold is heavily intoxicated, there’s an unsteady, boozy quality to the camerawork and compositions. While there are a few moments of more overt stylisation – a dream-like moment where Tony floats through the hallway of his home, a rough altercation between father and son filmed from the kitchen floor’s vantage point – they’re not counter to the tone or storytelling.

Mulcahy also serves his actors well, foregrounding the strong performances. Jesse Spencer gives a likeable, wounded, empathetic performance as the young adult Tony. Mitchell Dellevergin is similarly likeable as his younger self, and the actors comprising both young and old versions of Tony’s siblings also do nice work. But the gravitational centre of the film is the work of Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush as Dora and Harold Fingleton. Swimming Upstream marks the second of three onscreen pairings of these actors (see also Children of the Revolution and The Eye of the Storm) and they’re a formidable pair. Davis excels as a matriarch who remains strong for her children but struggles to muster strength to leave her husband, while Rush’s patriarch is a monstrous, unsavoury creation. Harold is egocentric, crippled by liquor & self-pity, and incapable of expressing love for his children; however, Rush’s innate likability also invests the character with a tragic dimension.

At some point in Down Under Flix’s future I plan to do a month of sports movies: sports flicks are a staple film genre and sport looms large in Australian culture, and yet local movies about sports are fairly sporadic. While Swimming Upstream is a familiar sports biopic in some respects – in much the same way that Paradise Found, reviewed a fortnight ago, is a somewhat rote artist biopic – it’s also a pitch black portrait of alcoholism and domestic abuse as well as a fine recreation of its era (the 1940s and 50s), with impeccable period detail in décor and wardrobe from the baths to the bars.

In summary: Russell Mulcahy shelves the dry ice and fog, delivering a solid human drama and tribute to its subject/author. Random side note for others of my vintage (namely children of the 90s): Swimming Upstream isn’t the only film bearing Fingleton’s name as screenwriter: he also co-scripted Drop Dead Fred. Mind. Blown.

Next week: Dad and Dave: On Our Selection (1995) celebrates 100 years of Australian cinema.

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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