Swimming Upstream is a biographical triumph over adversity drama set in sun-drenched 1950s Brisbane. It offers powerhouse performances from Geoffrey Rush as the protagonist’s bullying drunkard of a father and Judy Davis as his protective mother.Mitchell Dellevergin plays Tony Fingleton, a kid bewildered by his father’s rejection. Fingleton becomes a teenage swimming champion (Jesse Spencer) but is still unable to win father Harold’s approval. Davis’s strength and presence save us from another meek, dominated wife. Spencer does his best work in his scenes with Rush but otherwise offers a blandly modest and reasonable hero. Singer Tim Draxl makes a stronger impression as Tony’s younger, competitive brother John.
Anthony Fingleton wrote his own story with sister Diane (who also happens to be Queensland’s first female Chief Magistrate). The screenplay is subject to the usual flaws of the biopic genre – certain characters are distorted out of proportion and other family members, including Diane, fade into the background. But Swimming Upstream has something useful to say about the crippling codes of masculinity in this country.
Since he plays the piano and doesn’t take to boxing or footy, Tony is forever a “pansy” in his father’s eyes, despite his ultimate sporting success. In choosing to reject Olympic glory and fame to pursue an overseas scholarship, Fingleton proves himself an inspiring, if unlikely, hero. Australia lionises its sporting stars but pays little heed to academic achievement.
Russell Mulcahy is not a director for holding back. He brings excitement – and a frenzy of split screens – to the swimming meets. But some of the family confrontations are cartoonish in their bluntness, and only grounded by the performers. Mulcahy seeks approval from the audience as desperately as Fingleton does from his father. Primitive and crude as some of his techniques are, it’s hard not to get swept up in the thrill of the story, thanks largely to the quality of the players.
With such an inspirational arc, it’s no surprise that Swimming Upstream began life as a telemovie. It certainly doesn’t look like one now, thanks to Martin McGrath’s glowing cinematography and the marvellously rich work of Roger Ford (production design) and Angus Strathie (costume design) recreating the period.Swimming Upstream could almost be “Shine in the swimming pool”. It stars Geoffrey Rush, features a similar father-son dynamic and seems destined to attract acclaim and a considerable audience.