The price of becoming a champion

    Get on your marks! It’s time to dive into the deep end. While the bottom of the pool may be filled with mire, the sparkle at the top is undeniable. Poignant and powerful, “Swimming Upstream” is a remarkable piece of Australian filmmaking. This Australian-American coproduction, superbly directed by Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”), is based on the true story of 1950s Brisbane swimming champ Anthony Fingleton, whose gripping tale chronicles his iron will to pursue a dream in spite of the countless obstacles that arise from living in a dysfunctional Australian family.

    Mulcahy’s drama centers on young Tony Fingleton’s (Jesse Spencer) relationship with his distant father, Harold (Geoffrey Rush), and the dedication it took Tony to win his father’s respect. Born into a large family and convinced by his father that he will never amount to the achievements of his brothers, Tony attempts to win his father’s respect by becoming a champion swimmer. In his best efforts to please his father, Tony begins to realize his own self-worth in the process. Spencer (formerly of the Aussie soap “Neighbours”) certainly rises to the challenge as the tormented Tony, while Tim Draxl (John Fingleton) complements Spencer’s performance nicely by adding a degree of complexity as the competing brother caught between loyalty to Tony and his father.

    Superlative performances like Rush’s bring this moving story to life. Rush is extraordinary as the damaged, harsh alcoholic father with a violent streak. With the thorny father-son relationship at the core of the film, “Swimming Upstream” has fittingly been called “‘Shine’ in the swimming pool,” a testament to Rush’s brilliance as an actor who manages to instill some humanity and appeal into his troubled character.

    Judy Davis’ understated performance as the silently suffering wife brings the film’s most moving moments. The scenes shared between Davis and Spencer are where “Swimming Upstream” particularly excels. They are quite beautiful and breathe some depth into what could have amounted to a fairly straightforward sports film.

    Mulcahy’s uncanny ability to unravel this honest narrative, coupled with Martin McGrath’s brilliant cinematography, make “Swimming Upstream” a thoroughly appealing and engaging film that actually immerses the audience into the life of Tony Fingleton. We become part of the family as we share rare moments of calm, contrasted with agonizing scenes of domestic violence. Then we are in the pool, above and below the waterline, as Tony and John train, win and polish their trophies.

    The diverse and intelligently executed camera angles are what effectively bridge the gap between the audience and the movie screen. Take the shot (from the bottom of the pool) when an Australian penny hovers in the water before it sinks to the bottom. Or the extraordinary scene when the ugliness of a drunken, violent altercation is viewed through a spilt puddle of beer on the floor. The swimming sequences, with their split screens, are thrilling, and while Harold is willing John to win, our hearts are with Tony.

    Ultimately, “Swimming Upstream” is very genuine in its intent and authentic in its execution. It’s an uplifting story, with Tony never wavering from his dream, for which swimming is his ticket. An absorbing and haunting film, “Swimming Upstream” is an outright winner.

    Swimming Upstream

    Our rating: 3.5 stars

    Starring Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Jesse Spencer

    In theaters Feb. 4

    Rated PG-13

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