When we first see Tony Fingleton, the plucky Australian hero of Swimming Upstream, he's a cute little guy getting cuffed around by his vile big brother, Harold Jr. That's just the beginning of a long ordeal. For the next two hours of screen time, Tony (played as a teenager by Jesse Spencer) is continually besieged and abused by his drunken lout of a father (a glowering Geoffrey Rush). A creature of black moods and bitter disappointments, Rush's mostly jobless dockworker spews the crudest form of machismo, savages his family and destroys the relationship between Tony and his beloved younger brother, John (Tim Draxl). Meanwhile, the boys' sainted mum, Dora (Judy Davis), looks on helplessly in her threadbare housedress -- when she's not also getting belted about the place by her husband.
Why one of the burly sons doesn't crown good old Dad with a beer bottle, or maybe cut the bastard's overactive tongue out with a paring knife, is anybody's guess. Fear and the obligatory desire to please go only so far in explaining their hesitation.
But wait. Look for the silver lining. It may not sound like it, but we're actually in the realm of pseudo-religious inspiration here. So let's give Tony Fingleton his props straight away. In a classic case of using what doesn't kill you to make you stronger, the boy becomes an Australian swimming champion in the early 1960s (backstroke), wins a medal at the 1962 Empire Games, earns a scholarship to Harvard and marries a nice American girl with whom he's lived happily ever after. Here's the beauty part: He also managed to retell the tale of his troubles in a best-selling, barely fictionalized book (written with his sister, Diane), which has now been made into this very movie.
If you detect a tone of skepticism in this account, here's why. Directed by Russell Mulcahy in the clunky, flat-footed style that characterizes so many Aussie movies, Swimming Upstream puts the audience in an emotional bind it never intended to create. We're sympathetic to young Tony's plight, to be sure. We're appalled by the awful things his father did to him and his brother while driving them to become world-class swimmers. But there's a mood of self-satisfied martyrdom about the thing that can put you off. It's a commingling of wounded outrage with an incessant cry for understanding that dominates the entire memoir-as-therapy genre. Sure, it takes courage aplenty to expose the unresolved traumas of youth on the page; it also takes the kind of writer (inevitably, a one-hit wonder) who's probably willing to prostrate himself on The Jerry Springer Show. Fingleton's book -- and the stiff, dull movie it's spawned -- combine the worst elements of literary exhibitionism and unvarnished self-pity.
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That's not to say all volumes about their authors' abusive, dishonest fathers are junk. Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception is a twentieth-century classic, and a harrowing account of tortured youth called And When Did You Last See Your Father?, by a clear-eyed British author named Blake Morrison, deserves more attention than it got. Fingleton cannot carry their pencils. But that did not prevent him from writing this screenplay himself.
Still, Swimming Upstream has some strengths. As the cruel, damaged brute of the piece, Rush puts in another startlingly fine performance: Take the mentally impaired concert pianist he gave us in Shine, his recent turn on HBO as explosive comedy genius Peter Sellers and this portrait of blind fury, and you've got a pretty potent trifecta. Director Mulcahy stresses the ham-fisted details -- Harold Sr. tossing young Tony's copy of Hamlet into the pool, Harold Sr. bellowing at his long-suffering wife in a drunken rage -- but Rush himself manages to bring some nice shading to an unsavory character. The terror behind his eyes. The seething misery of his growing up. Unless you're in the mood for swim meets and more swim meets, Rush is the one thing worth watching here, and he's not even supposed to be the focus of our attention.
As for Tony Fingleton's journey toward glory and discovery, it's as much a story of precious self-regard as of courageous intensity. We're told, in no uncertain terms, that little Tony was a sensitive pianist who could play "The Minute Waltz" in a minute as well as a swift backstroker and a hail-fellow-well-met, in the bargain. Chided on the blocks by a competitor, he shoots back: "You'll have to do better than that; I've been psyched out by experts." Fine. Now get in the water and race.
Swimming Upstream is bound to be praised as an act of bravery, a source of inspiration and a sports movie in the great underdog-makes-good tradition. But for those contrarians among us us who cast a cold eye on the current rage for memoir -- memoir good and bad, memoir high and low, memoir that's creepily indulgent -- there remains the discomfiting sense that this entire enterprise, book and movie, is impelled not only by self-therapy but by dark revenge and a certain hint of boastfulness. The good son remains, after all, his father's boy.