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SWIMMING UPSTREAM – Rising above deep water

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Rated: M15+

SWIMMING Upstream was virtually ignored at the 2002 Australian Film Awards.

Yet this drama about Australian swimming champion Anthony Fingleton and his struggle to free himself from a dominating father, is one of the most satisfying Australian films of the last few years.

Set in Brisbane in the 1950s, and based on Anthony Fingleton’s original screenplay, Melbourne-born director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander 1 and 2) brings a welcome naturalism and flair to the telling of Fingleton’s story

Tony Fingleton (Jesse Spencer from Neighbours) was one of five children born into an impoverished family whose lives were blighted by their moody, tyrannical father Harold (Geoffrey Rush).

Harold, we are led to believe, is not an inherently bad man. A wharf labourer and a Catholic forced to endure long spells of unemployment, he loves his long-suffering wife Dora (Judy Davis), and is ambitious for his offspring. But as the victim of a disturbed childhood himself, when times are tough, Harold turns to alcohol for solace and torments his children.

In recent years there have been a number of films about the complex relationship between fathers and sons (Affliction, The Road to Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, and Australian Rules). However few of these have caught with such clarity the terrible inner conflict of a child forced to contend with both the crippling power of a loved but feared parent, and his own instinct to survive.

Rush’s portrait of Harold Fingleton is masterly. Not only does Harold deny his four sons and a daughter the unalloyed love that is their entitlement. He pits brother against brother with malign pleasure, creating a bitter rivalry between Tony and John (Tim Draxl), who are also best friends. When he discovers that Tony and John are talented swimmers, he uses them to gratify his own ambition, driving a wedge between the brothers as he forces them to compete for both international fame and his grudging affection.

Mulcahy, who made his name with music videos before moving to Hollywood, recreates the complex dynamics of Fingleton’s troubled family with assurance and insight. His reconstruction of the period is also exact and without nostalgia. Particularly effective is his surreal use of water (Tony floating in a water-filled room or swimming pool) to convey inner emotions, and his use of the split screen (a late 50s device) for swimming events. There are also small cameos of Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose.

All the characters in Swimming Upstream are convincing and real. But it is Judy Davis as Dora who is the heart of the film. If Harold is an opaque and forbidding presence, then it is Dora who represents the durability of love and its power to heal.

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