The Swimmers Review

The emotional power of Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers is present, but it comes in waves interrupted by sprinkles of forced sentimentality and padded length. This true story of two sisters escaping war torn Syria is gripping enough that a Rocky style training montage and pop music interludes feels a little extra. For much of its length, this is a potent and often frightening tale of the refugee experience through their eyes and their fellow travelers from numerous nations.

Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) Mardini are being trained by their father/coach (Ali Suliman) to excel in the title sport. The goal is clear – make the Olympics and do their country proud. Real world events interfere when, by 2015, President Assad is waging war on his own citizens. For any hope of success or just surviving, the sibs join their cousin (Ahmed Malek) on a trek to Germany while leaving their parents and little sister behind. The long road to pined for full family reunification find its path through several countries and the Aegean Sea.

That dangerous Sea crossing is the climactic centerpiece and it comes around the middle mark of 134 minutes. El Hosaini and her team are technically proficient. The sound and cinematography deserve special mention. It’s an expertly constructed sequence and there’s other haunting bits of the Mardini’s path to freedom.

The running time is too long. By the time the Yusra and Sara find a German instructor (Matthias Schweighofer) to assist in making the 2016 Rio games a reality (through the Refugee Olympic Team or ROT), The Swimmers becomes watered down. It simply can’t keep up with what preceded it.

You may note the actresses playing the Mardini’s have the same last name and that’s because the Issa’s are also sisters. This shows in their effortless chemistry. Yusra is focused on the gold medal goal while Sara is more of a wild card. However, she doesn’t hesitate to move into older sibling protective mode when called upon. Before they reach Rio, that’s when The Swimmers hits mostly right notes. To borrow a phrase from Duran Duran (even though it’s Sia who gets the soundtrack love), that’s when El Hosaini and her team really shine and show you all they can.

*** (out four)

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