"Swimming Upstream" is a welcome throwback to the rich Australian cinema of the late '70s and '80s that was suffused with the sense of an entire people discovering itself on the screen. There was a tremendous freshness, energy and lack of self-consciousness in such films as "Newsfront," "The Winter of Our Dreams" and "High Tide" -- to name the first three that come to mind. At the same time, "Swimming Upstream" is a stunning instance of a work in which it is easy to perceive the universal in the particular.
Adapted by Anthony Fingleton for the screen from his autobiographical novel written with his sister Diane and directed with vigor by Russell Mulcahy, the film opens in Brisbane in the 1950s.
Geoffrey Rush's Harold Fingleton is a tough, rangy dockworker with four sons and a daughter and a resilient, understanding wife, Dora (Judy Davis). Home is a modest but pleasant cottage.
Harold favors his rugged eldest son, Harold Jr. (David Hoflin), who incessantly bullies the next eldest son, Tony (Jesse Spencer), who feels he can never connect with his father. Tony is different from the other Fingletons: He plays the piano and takes music lessons and loves to read, much to his father and older brother's derision. But Tony is close to his younger brother John (Tim Draxl) and receives encouragement from his mother. Luckily for Tony and John, there's a municipal swimming pool nearby that provides escape from their father's mood swings.
The pool sometimes attracts the youngest Fingleton brother and the little sister, but Tony and John have become passionate about swimming.
The day their father takes notice changes the lives of the Fingletons forever. Harold rightly sees in his teenage middle sons a pair of champs-in-the-making and coaches them strictly. But as time passes, Harold's terrible childhood as the son of a prostitute, his failure to make it onto Australia's football team and the brutal strikes on the docks all take their toll, and Harold becomes an increasingly violent alcoholic.
Tony Fingleton's odyssey leads him to become Australia's top swimmer, but his story will be familiar to countless sons of alcoholic fathers. Harold has always scorned Tony for being unlike his other children and is jealous of Tony's athletic prowess in a way he is not of John's. Tony is learning the ancient truth for children of alcoholics: That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. But it doesn't stop a son's craving for love and approval from a parent.
But there's a larger truth Tony also learns: At some point a child's drive to succeed, to escape his or her environment, can outgrow the need to please a parent and be replaced by personal goals.
"Swimming Upstream" is too compassionate and unpretentious -- and too wise -- to underline the obvious: Tony is simply smarter than his siblings -- and his mother, who is also quite intelligent, encourages him accordingly but without calling attention to it. Tony Fingleton is not the first son of an alcoholic to realize wryly that he owes something to his father for providing the adversity, as scarring as it can be, that prods him to succeed.
Ever since his Oscar-winning portrayal of pianist David Helfgott in 1996's "Shine," Geoffrey Rush has portrayed people as singular as the Marquis de Sade and Peter Sellers. So it is something of a surprise to find him playing a blue-collar Aussie bloke and realizing how physically right he is for the part. He captures the torment and anguish of Harold Fingleton and his unrelenting bullheadedness. What a pleasure it is to see Rush teamed with the equally formidable and protean Judy Davis, whose Dora clearly loves her husband but is strong enough to refuse to be a doormat. Yet she also despairs over his disintegration.
Spencer and Draxl are clean-cut types as the brothers whose deep bond is put to the test by their fierce competition in sport. "Swimming Upstream" evokes time and place without being showy about it and offers an altogether invigorating experience.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving alcoholism and domestic abuse
Times guidelines: Suitable for more mature teens
David Hoflin...Harold Jr.
An MGM release of a Crusader Entertainment presentation. Director Russell Mulcahy. Producers Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin, Paul Pompian. Executive producers Anthony Fingleton, William J. Immerman, Andrew Mason. Screenplay by Anthony Fingleton; based on the book by Anthony Fingleton and Diane Fingleton. Cinematographer Martin McGrath. Editor Marcus D'Arcy. Music Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. Costumes Angus Strathie. Production designer Roger Ford. Art director Laurie Faen. Set decorator Karrie Brown.
Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4262; the Cineplex Beverly Center 13, 8522 Beverly Blvd., (310) 652-7760; and the Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive (opposite UCI), Irvine, (949) 854-8818.