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‘Swimming Upstream’ can't find the right stroke

Geoffrey Rush plays the abusive, alcoholic father of a swimming star. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Geoffrey Rush is so convincing as an abusive, alcoholic father of five that he makes “Swimming Upstream” hard to watch at times. That’s simultaneously a compliment and a complaint.

Based on the true story of Tony Fingleton, an Australian swimming champ in the early 1960s, the movie is repetitive and overlong, rendering Rush’s vivid performance too frequently repellant.

Rather than feeling inspired by the way Tony (the blond, tanned and toned Jesse Spencer) overcomes his violent upbringing, you may find yourself wanting to escape the way he does when things get ugly: by diving underwater.

Part of the problem might be that Fingleton himself wrote the script, based on the memoir he co-authored with his younger sister, Diane. It’s his life, so of course every moment seems meaningful, formative, poignant. For the viewer, though, it feels like a never-ending cycle of training, racing, drinking and fighting.

This is in no way intended to dismiss the pain he endured on his way to finding unexpected success as a swimming star. Tony’s father, Harold, always favored the eldest son, Harold Jr. (David Hoflin), for his athletic prowess. He would frequently tease the smaller Tony for his interest in playing the piano and even encouraged Harold Jr. to beat him bloody, supposedly to teach Tony how to defend himself.

Only when Harold realizes that Tony and another son, John (Tim Draxl), possess natural speed and strength in the pool does he begin paying attention to them. But even then he favors John, the freestyle specialist, to Tony, who shines with his backstroke, and he pits the brothers and close friends against each other with pathological single-mindedness in hopes of making John better.

Director Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”) relies too heavily on split-screen during the film’s many training scenes and swim meets to show the competitors and the family and friends cheering them on. He says in the film’s production notes that he’s fond of this technique from the ’60s, but he doesn’t need it. There’s enough inherent drama that these sequences could have stood on their own.

(A bit of trivia: Mulcahy directed the first video that aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” He also directed several stylish early Duran Duran videos in the 1980s — which featured a lot of split-screen.)

Despite Tony’s victories, Harold can’t bring himself to be happy for his son. Instead, he bitterly drinks himself into a stupor, stumbles home and lashes out at whomever happens to be awake at that hour.

As Rush has proven time and time again in films including “Shine” and “Quills,” he’s capable of disappearing into any role with frightening believability. Judy Davis, meanwhile, is typically strong as Dora, the earthy, unshakable matriarch of the blue-collar Fingleton clan. (And with her wiry frame and her reddish-brown hair pulled back loosely, she also bears a resemblance to Katharine Hepburn.)

Mulcahy evocatively depicts the unpredictability and horror of these drunken scenes, but again employs unnecessary visual tricks. In one of them, he shoots from beneath a see-through kitchen floor to show bodies tussling on the ground amid spilled beer bottles.

For a film so rooted in a bleak reality, such techniques needlessly flow against the current.