The Swimmers (Review) – A Migration Story To Dive Into

DIRECTOR: Sally El Hosaini

CAST: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Ahmed Malek, Matthias Schweighöfer, James Floyd, Ali Suliman, Kinda Alloush, Elmi Rashid Elmi

RUNNING TIME: 134 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: Two sisters (Issa and Issa) flee Syria and migrate to Europe…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

With the migrant crisis still present in both news and politics, there’s still plenty to get upset about, from the awful conditions that most refugees have to endure just to escape their home country, to the unfortunate rise of right-wing policies that are only making the situation even more unbearable. However, every so often there is a bright shining story amidst all the chaos, and the truly eye-opening story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini – who in 2015 fled Damascus, Syria and make quite the journey toward Germany, as you’ll find out momentarily – is one of those inspiring tales of hardship, courage, and above all sports that almost seems destined for the silver screen.

And destined it was, for their story is now told in director and co-writer Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers, a film which details their experience of European migration in often harrowing detail, and really makes you think about how rough and dangerous stuff like this can be, but for all of its noble ambitions it can’t help but turn into something more traditional by the end.

Beginning in 2015, Yusra and Sara (played by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa respectively) have been training to become Olympic-level swimmers under the tutelage of their father Ezzat (Ali Suliman), a former swimmer who has now pinned all his hopes on his daughters. Eventually, the destructive conditions make living in Syria next to impossible, and the girls – along with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) – begin their migration to Germany, where they hope to continue their training in time to compete for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Alas, their journey is met with severe difficulty at virtually every junction, from getting into the back of dark and stuffy vans, to being targeted by predatory traffickers, and just wait until you hear about what happens when their overstuffed motorboat suddenly stops working in the middle of the ocean.

The film is at its most compelling when it is strictly documenting the sisters’ harrowing migration across Europe, where you truly feel how nerve-wracking and just plain terrifying such an ordeal can be. The camerawork and editing do well to capture the anxiety being felt by not just our protagonists, but the dozens of other migrants who are travelling for their own justifiable reasons. At certain moments, you don’t know whether to gasp for air as some people on-screen are doing in particular scenarios, or let yourself sink into despair as others begin to panic and reconsider their choices, which El Hosaini and co-writer Jack Thorne manage to drive home with sobering, considerate moments that allow these characters to react exactly how most people would if placed in their shoes. Likewise, the cinematography by Christopher Ross is equally unsettling, with some shots delivering some devastating commentary on the general chaos with hard-hitting aplomb (one set on a beach slowly draws back to reveal countless life jackets littered as far as the eye can see, right after a horrifying sequence where such things are more than necessary), making for a rather well-shot study of what it must be like to experience all of this first-hand.

However, it’s when the film finally reaches its destination that it becomes a lot more generic and run-of-the-mill than what we were previously getting. All of a sudden, just as we’re getting into the third act, The Swimmers turns into a straight-up sports movie, one that follows a surprising amount of conventions almost to a tee – among them: finding a coach; a training montage; being told they’re not going to get into an international competition; another training montage; encouraging dialogue; yet another training montage; and so on. Nearly everything from the acting to the dialogue to the cinematography becomes less natural and authentic than before, and begins feeling more like you’re watching a much more standard sports movie; not a poorly made or even badly written one, just familiar and less unique. What’s more, it takes the overly Hollywood route and gives itself the kind of ending which not only doesn’t feel entirely true to real life – a quick Google search on these real-life figures will reveal some glum details that the film only reserves for the ending text – but slightly cheapens the genuinely captivating and harrowing material that preceded all of it.

While it slightly loses its footing further towards the end – and consequently does make you feel that two-and-a-quarter hour running time – The Swimmers does make up for its glaring faults by being a compelling and very well-made account of a truly inspiring real-life migration story, which so happens to have a conclusion that’s exactly like a Hollywood movie – too much like one, as it turns out.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Swimmers is an often harrowing account of the astonishing real-life migration story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, detailing their terrifying journey from Syria all the way through Europe with sobering consideration for their and other migrants’ plights, but it starts to slip up around the third act, when it suddenly becomes a much more generic sports movie.

The Swimmers will be released on Netflix from Wednesday 23rd November 2022.

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