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‘The Swimmers’ Review: A Crowd-Pleasing Drama of Struggle, Sisterhood and Olympic Dreams



Both adversity and triumph are in abundant supply in Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers, an undeniably powerful if inescapably episodic drama chronicling the harrowing, real-life flight taken by a pair of sisters from war-ravaged Syria to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Ushering in the first business-as-usual edition of the Toronto International Film Festival since 2019, the film’s world premiere should set the stage for a buoyant response ahead of its Nov. 23 Netflix bow — particularly for the performances of the siblings cast as Olympics hopeful Yusra Mardini and her older sister Sara.

The Swimmers

The Bottom Line

A potent if uneven refugee drama.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Release date: Wednesday Nov. 23
Cast: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Matthias Schweighofer, Ahmed Malek
Director: Sally El Hosaini
Screenwriters: Jack Thorne and Sally El Hosaini

2 hours 14 minutes

Prior to the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the rebellious Sara (Manal Issa) and her studious younger sister Yusra (Nathalie Issa) have been living the life of average teenagers in sun-drenched, suburban Damascus when not swimming competitively under the tutelage of their coach father (Ali Suliman).

But when the growing violence hits too close to home, the sisters, in the company of their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), embark on a perilous journey from Damascus to Berlin via Istanbul, Lesbos and Budapest. The trip is fraught with shady smugglers and a tangle of bureaucratic red tape that threatens a reunion with the rest of their family members while awaiting approval of their own asylum.

Just as her Olympic dreams would appear to be unattainable, Yusra meets up with a sympathetic German swim coach (Matthias Schweighofer), who ultimately convinces her to compete in a newly-formed refugee team at Rio in lieu of representing Syria.

With just her second feature, following 2012’s My Brother the Devil, Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker El Hosaini demonstrates a strong command over imagery that is as poetic as it is potent. In her capable hands and those of her cinematographer Christopher Ross, sequences involving an as-yet-undetonated bomb slowly drifting towards the bottom of a swimming pool or a group of refugees traversing a veritable sea of ​​orange and yellow life vests belonging to all those who have arrived before them pack a visceral, surreal punch.

Strong, too, is the unbreakable sisterly bond beautifully and tenderly depicted in the performances of Lebanese actors Manal and Nathalie Issa, which endures despite their distinctly individual personalities and desires.

But the script, penned by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne (Wonder) and based on Yusra’s 2018 autobiography, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, also sees fit to throw in the sort of standard-issue, crowd-rousing victory finale (complete with composer Steven Price’s obligatory fanfares) that audiences have come to expect. Considering all that the siblings have overcome leading up to that point, the moment can’t help but feel a bit anti-climactic. Especially when those Olympics training sequences feel squeezed for time compared to the rest of the film’s deliberate, thoughtful pacing.

In the case of Yusra and Sara Mardini’s remarkable survival story, their empowering journey ultimately proves more rewarding than the conventional destination.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Distribution: Netflix
Cast: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Matthias Schweighofer, Ahmed Malek, James Kirshna Floyd, Nahel Tzegai, Kinda Alloush, Ali Suliman
Production companies: Working Title Films
Director: Sally El Hosaini
Screenwriters: Jack Thorne and Sally El Hosaini
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tim Cole, Ali Jaafar
Executive Producers: Stephen Daldry, Katherine Pomfret, Tilly Coulson
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Patrick Rolfe
Costume designer: Molly Emma Rowe
Editor: Ian Kitching
Music: Steven Price
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Sales: Netflix

2 hours 14 minutes

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