Rush and Davis give bold performances in this true-life account of Aussie swimming champ Tony Fingleton.
Athletic biographies and films about sports in general seem to keep audiences enthralled as they line up to see them, rooting for the underdog and living vicariously through their triumphs as well as viscerally feeling their emotional (and physical) scars they accumulate in the long and winding road to success.
In the latest true-life account the sport is swimming and the athlete is Australia's national champion Tony Fingleton circa the 1950s-early 1960s, beginning with his humble beginnings as the middle child of a family of five and clearly not his father's favorite as the story proceeds to illustrate just how blunt that fact is with some heartbreaking moments of just how difficult it can be to be a perfect athletic specimen, but an absolute zero in the eyes of a loved one.
Tony's blue-collar working class dad, Harold (a superb Rush in a continuing string of chameleon like turns of late), a man who houses many demons and unleashes his inner fury through bottles of beer , tries his best to provide for his sprawling tight family and although his focus on winning-is-the-only-thing-that-matters view in life has to face his failures every day (he gave up a promising attempt as a professional soccer star by marrying young, and regretting every moment thereafter) in spite of his loving family and long-suffering wife Dora (the ethereally haggard Davis equally top-notch in a semi-low-key performance). His main cause of bitterness is apparently his son Tony's good-natured, loving self that only may mirror the phantoms of what Harold may have been (or could have been) and his reflection is only refracted back with disappointment until one day the young boy and his sibling John announce they can swim very well much to his surprise. Harold sees this magical moment as his ticket by coaching his lads gruelingly to stardom and becomes obsessed in their times by carrying his ubiquitous stop-watch at all times and having the boys go at the crack of dawn every day until they are young men equally scrabbling to make names of themselves (and eventually to disembark their trappings for the real world).
Spencer gives a remarkably effective performance as the tortured Tony (as does Dellevergin as his younger version) attempting to shake off the waves of abuse and loathing from the only person he so desperately wants to make proud of and is ably supported by a more difficult turn by Draxl (and his younger counterpoint Davidson) as John. The two young brothers are thick and thin covering for each other when things get messy yet eventually a wedge is driven between the two by the conniving Harold who will stop at nothing to see his 'dream' the way it should be.
The acting by both Rush and Davis is truly impressive as each manages to avoid making either of their roles true monsters and victims by giving them shades of gray in character and just enough reality to their pre-conceived stereotypes alcoholic loser and misbegotten abused wife.
Veteran director Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER) has a difficult task in keeping the film's pace relevant to the seemingly endless swim matches and his choice of pulsating music diminishes his clever wipes and split-screens to divvy up the emotional overload his characters are going through. Yet the screenplay by Anthony Fingleton - based on his biography with his younger sister Diane keeps the storyline real in its brutality and shame.
What easily could have been a waterlogged THE GREAT SANTINI the film achieves the unexpected: sympathy for a loser and new-found respect for a winner.