VOD film review: The Swimmers
Ivan Radford | On 31, Dec 2022
Director: Sally El Hosaini
Cast: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Matthias Schweighofer
“I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose. Fire away, fire away…” Those are the lyrics to David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium, released in 2011. Would it have been playing in a 2015 nightclub in Syria, just as bombs were dropped on Damascus? It’s a reach, but one that The Swimmers is happy to make in its opening act, as it sets the scene for a big, broad crowd pleaser – and the audacity of that moment, which is simultaneously visually impressive and painfully on-the-nose, also sets the bar for this refugee sporting drama.
The film dramatises the true story of sisters Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) Mardini, who are both swimmers living in Syria as conflict erupts. As their family looks for a way to evacuate the country, the sisters ultimately end up taking a perilous journey to Germany to apply for asylum and hopefully bring the rest of the family to join them. Once there, Yusra continues to pursue her dream of swimming in the 2016 Rio Olympics – and, after a lot of training and with the help of her new coach Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), she realises that goal.
There’s no spoiler in knowing this is how the story ends up, as it’s baked right into the uplifting heart of the whole tale – indeed, the very premise of the movie’s existence is delivering the kind of feel-good, underdog hit that made Cool Runnings such a hit back in the 1990s. The problem is that the film doesn’t do enough to overcome that.
The direction by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil) is evocative and immersive, with tracking shots deployed to moving effect. The performances by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa have a natural chemistry that brings some depth to their broad-strokes characters. But the script, by the profilic and talented Jack Thorne, leans so far into the conventions of the underdog sports genre that it ends up feeling like the familiar formula defines the story and the remarkable people in it – the details that we learn in the end credits make you wish that the story changed lanes and told a different story.