Swimming With Men

SWIMMING WITH MEN. Starring: Rob Brydon, Jane Horrocks, Rupert Graves, Charlotte Riley, Daniel Mays, Adeel  Akhtar, and Jim Carter. Directed by Oliver Parker. Rated M (Coarse language). 97 min.

This British comedy deals with the fortunes and misfortunes of a male, synchronised swimming team. Its script is based on the 2010 Swedish documentary “Men Who Swim” which is about a male Swedish team called “Stockholm Art Swim Gents, and is based on a true story. There has also been a French version of the film, which appeared in 2018 as “Sink or Swim”.

In this version, Eric (Rob Brydon) is an accountant who is  experiencing marital difficulties with his wife, Heather (Jane Horrocks), and is depressed. He thinks his wife may be cheating on him, he is bored with his job, he doesn’t relate at all well to his adolescent son, and he is jealous of his wife’s energy and the fact she has found stimulation through the lure of politics - which she is obviously good at, having run for political office and won.

Conscious of his age, which he knows is not going backwards, Eric wants to win Heather back, and he senses a chance when he is given the opportunity to join a local, male swimming team. He encounters the team while working out in a pool one day. He sees them at the bottom of the pool; they look friendly; and he decides to give them advice.

With his offer of help on one of their manoeuvres, he joins the group which decides to train for the world synchronised, male swimming championships in Milan, Italy. They are a group of oddball, lonely misfits who haltingly decide to represent their country by attempting to do what seems impossible. One is gay ( Adeel Akhtar), one is a construction worker (Daniel Mays), one of them is a widower (Jim Carter), two of them don’t speak much at all, and none of them is athletic.

Eric wants to find meaning in his mid-life crisis, and most of men in the swimming group are looking to find the same. The group is searching for self-esteem through synchronised swimming, and the men in the group are enjoying the friendship with each other in trying to find it. As a swimming group, they all stand united in a “protest against the meaninglessness of life”.

The film echoes the marketing thrust of “The Full Monty” (1997) which dealt with a group of unemployed steelworkers who tried to rescue their feelings of self-worth by forming a striptease group. This movie pulls back from the promise (or threat) of nudity, and is a light movie about a group of middle-age men looking for a purpose in life, and bonding together to enjoy it - while  their lives roll on through middle-age. In the group, Jim Carter projects amiable sensitivity as a widow, and Rupert Graves is a divorced real estate agent who manages to fall romantically in love with Susan (Charlotte Riley), who works at the pool, and trains them for the world championships.

In the film, there is no penetrating examination of emotions for any member of the swim group, and the movie stays comfortably at the surface of male needs. It gently looks for fun by humiliating them and deals with personal growth by exploring their conflicts at the outer edges of the male psyche. It has an interesting set of observations, or social commentary on financial pressures, past disappointments in life, and the emasculating effect of unemployment which many men in the group are experiencing. In doing so, it trades emotional probing for social comment, but does the latter reasonably well. No personal revelation in this movie looks urgent, or too upsetting, as occurred in “The Full Monty”, and the movie coasts to a predictable ending where Eric is reunited with his wife, and the swimming team gets its synchronised act together.

This is a film about ageing men, with sagging bodies, looking for a purpose in life and finding it through bonding. It doesn’t engender a great deal of engagement in close, emotional connection. Rob Brydon - famous for his “Trip” movies with co-star, Steve Coogan - takes the lead role and shows comic flair, but the film as a whole offers only light entertainment - enjoyable, but not too dramatic, or insightful, and it winds to its conclusion in an unconvincing, but feel-good way.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Icon Films

Released March 21, 2019

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