Netflix UK film review: Swimming with Men
James R | On 28, Feb 2019
Director: Oliver Parker
Cast: Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Thomas Turgoose
Watch Swimming with Men online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Synchronised swimming. Two words you don’t offer hear in a cinema. Another two? Rob Brydon. Despite being a talented Tom Jones impersonator and an all-round national treasure, the Welsh comedian isn’t someone who regularly gets the chance to lead a movie. Swimming with Men takes all four of those words and combines them into one of the unlikeliest and most charming Brit flicks of the last year.
The film, as the title suggests, follows a group of men who decide to go swimming – and, specifically, do so together as a team. Co-ordinating limbs, breaths and splashes, they make for an unusual spectacle in the water, attempting to synchronise their movements into something aesthetically pleasing, if not full-on artistic. What makes Swimming with Men a success is that it doesn’t treat this as something strange, but entirely natural; it gives this rag-tag bunch of males the respect that they feel they’re lacking elsewhere, whether that’s from other people or from themselves.
That’s how Eric (Brydon) ends up joining the team. Faced with an unhappy marriage, the accountant looks to leave behind his problems – and his wife, Heather (Jane Horrocks) – in the pool, only to find his mathematical brain giving advice to a failing, flailing gaggle of swimmers. They recruit him for the club, on one condition: none of them discuss their life or work problems. That’s the one and only rule of swim club: nobody talks about things that aren’t swim club.
They’re a typically motley crew, from construction worker Colin (an intense Daniel Mays) and widower Ted (Jim Carter) to young tearaway Tom (the amusing Thomas Turgoose) and Kurt (the always-excellent Adeel Akhtar), who’s more secret than the rest about his private life. They’re led by Luke (the likeable Rupert Graves), who may or may not have a thing for pool manage Susan (the no-nonsense Charlotte Riley). By the time they’ve begged her to coach them ahead of the looming championships in Milan, there are no bonus points for guessing how this underdog tale unfolds, or whether intergenerational bunch ever manage to open up.
But what is surprising is the way that Swimming with Men paddles around that central issue. 20 years ago, this would have been the formula for a The Full Monty wannabe, complete with loud sidekicks, gross-out set pieces and a token scene in a Post Office. But Swimming with Men is more thoughtful than that. Based on the 2010 Swedish doc Men Who Swim, Aschlin Ditta’s script is more interested in the nuances of middle age and masculinity than pop culture references, and while that might sound like a snore, there’s something gently moving about the way the film dissects the age-old stereotype of men not expressing their feelings.
Whether it’s Graves’ Luke declaring his affections or Carter’s Jim admitting his grief, there’s a genuine sense of emotional development for each of these oddballs – a mosaic of character journeys that’s held together delicately by Rob Brydon. Brydon’s comic timing, natural charisma and heartfelt vulnerability bring a quiet maturity to the drama and a pathos to the comedy, turning a cute flick about swimming into a sweet, compelling study of regaining one’s self-respect – not through toxic behaviour or violent outbursts, but by learning to pay attention to others. Despite its simple surface and lack of belly laughs, this underrated story dips its toes into waters not often charted by modern cinema. Dive right in and you may find yourself unexpectedly rewarded.
Swimming with Men is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.