Swimming With Men review: Bubbly performances and mostly seamless writing keep this feel-good Brit-com afloat amongst the madness.
Swimming With Men review by Abi Silverthorne.
Rob Brydon and his gang of merry middle-aged gentlemen don’t just embrace vulnerability in Parker’s new comedy. They plunge headfirst into it and emerge, spluttering, a bit out-of-breath, and dripping in likability.
It’s impressive, and quite lovely, and surely the only way to tackle such a film. Based loosely (in spirit) on the heartwarmingly squiffy observation of the Dylan William documentary on the Swedish Men’s Synchronised Swimming team, Swimming with Men — and it’s cast —would have been remiss if it had tried to rinse away the awkwardness, the absurdity, the real shape of (men in) the water, as it were.
As it happens, this is a delightful and un-glamourised sports drama if not an all out mick-take at times. No chlorified chest hair or spasming duck leg goes un-noted as we follow Eric (Brydon) a critically bored and socially anxious accountant who struggles to keep himself above the tide of day-to-day adulthood. Identical office nine-to-fives, a contemptuous teenaged son and a wife (Jane Horrocks on ferocious form) he just can’t connect to anymore are like a drowning deluge, and he’s a man who seems far out from everything and everyone, even from the centre of himself.
It’s only hasty swim sessions at the local metropolis leisure centre, crammed in-between his work hours and his family’s social schedule, that’s what releases him from this dissatisfaction. In the water Eric is, if not totally worry free, at least by himself, for a moment.
That is, until he stumbles (or paddles) across the unofficial men’s synchronised team. He first spots them like lagoon spectres, each of them trippily appearing in a long cross-legged line by the bottom of the ladder, completely invisible above the surface. In fact their bizarre, out of the blue appearances in the deep of the public pool underworld are so hysterical you almost don’t want them to become any more familiar. But familiar they do become, and before long Eric has been adopted into the ranks, recognised for the fellow lost soul and man ill-at-ease that he is.
Like Eric, we get to know the team less through too much exposition but simply by the dynamic they share between each other in the pool. The team has a saying: they are only as strong as their strongest member, and that is strong enough. If this is the case, such a great ensemble of British talent are all as strong as each other — no weak link in sight. Rupert Graves is dashing and sweetly geeky as the balance obsessed team leader, while Jim Carter and Daniel Mays make a great twosome as a to-do widower and a loudmouth builder who have somehow each taken it upon themselves to bestow fatherly rage and patience in turn upon Thomas Turgoose’s bratty junior juvenile. Adeel Akhtar is as fantastic as ever, somehow balancing prickliness and unassuming genteel in a character you sense could (and should) carry his own film somewhere in some other tangental narrative.
Meanwhile Charlotte Riley lights up the room as the swim teacher who adopts the team, trying so aggressively to get them, in all their amateur glory, to the world championships that she ends up making them either fall in love or literally die of exhaustion at her plimsoled feet.
And of course, Rob Brydon. He charms in a brilliantly understated performances. An underdog hero like Eric is nothing new on the scene of British comedy, not after the Cornetto trilogy, but the performance is riddled with subtle physicality; Brydon seems to shrink into the lapels of his suit, face permanently, resignedly lax with the weight of a deflated ego, and a shifty demeanour that’s never far from wounded. No one is surprised that he plays the social awkwardness with crackling humour — interrupting his wife’s dinner with her boss to pack up all the wine in the house in revenge, before fleeing, is one particular highlight — but the subtle undercurrent of emotional upheaval adds depth
Aschlin Ditta’s work is full of charm and spark, and Oliver Parker brings some visual whizz to the proceedings, with the editing showing time stretched and skipped and speeded up and frozen during the minutia before the men can get back to swimming, while all of the underwater shots are quite stunning. Parker knows how to use the water to capture the things that go unspoken; loneliness is a figure adrift, togetherness is a silent ring of kicking feet, whether they’re doing the move right or not. The symbolism is clear but satisfying, synchronicity in the water is helping bring synchronicity to every other aspect of their lives: their friendships, their marriages, their mental health, it all starts with the co-ordination of foot-to-foot, hand-to-hand, silhouetted from below.
The film is so much stronger when it is fully submerged in the strangeness of the story. When it veers, as it does mostly in the third act, into well-worn outcomes and on the nose dialogue, not even the strength of the performances can stop it from slightly sinking. None of the men on the team cared about convention, as they take great care to explain, so the film should settle for it even less so.
At least, even as the humour might lose its more strange whip-sharp edge, the feel-good factor never relents in what is ultimately an entertaining family-film that doesn’t quite go for gold, but makes a splash all the same.
Swimming With Men review by Abi Silverthorne.
Swimming With Men is released in UK cinemas on Friday 6th July.