Toronto 2022 Review: The Swimmers
The opening night of a film festival is the perfect place for a crowd-pleaser, and while — like with any genre — quality varies dramatically, Toronto could have done much worse than Sally El Hosaini's The Swimmers. Yes, it's formulaic, and yes, it's bloated, but as a harrowing depiction of the refugee crisis, an ultimately emotional underdog story, and — most crucially — a showcase for the film's two young leads, the film succeeds more often than not.
Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa charm and emote in equal measure as real-life sisters Sarah and Yusra Mardini, respectively, who notably fled Syria during the Syrian Civil War, survived a terrifying land and sea journey to Germany, and ultimately saw younger sister Yusra compete in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics as a swimmer for the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team. On paper, this melding of survival story and sports melodrama sounds like a sure thing, an intriguing combination designed to effectively tug at double the amount of heartstrings. But despite the best efforts of El Hosaini and writer Jack Thorne to do justice to the Mardini sisters’ story, there isn’t quite enough room in an already overlong film to fully explore both elements. Though the sisters’ swimming careers and dreams function as throughline (and the title) of the film, that aspect is ultimately given short shrift, understandably relegated to a third act that feels stretched out and anticlimactic after the propulsive events of the film’s first hour and a half.
Which is a shame, as El Hosaini does an admirable job of placing us alongside the Mardinis and their fellow refugees as they attempt the perilous journey to an assumed better life in the more stable (or at least, less war-torn) areas of Europe. An early setpiece at a swim meet in Damascus reveals El Hosaini’s command of tension, as does the most impressive and emotionally draining section of the film, a horrifying ocean crossing in which the sisters are forced to put their skills to an unthinkably practical use. Despite the overall sagginess of the film, these sequences are well-shot and well-edited, and anchored by the committed performances of the Issa sisters, who also show out admirably in the less thrilling scenes — despite a few too many instances of what feels like forced emotional conflict between the sisters, the leads acquit themselves well and hold our attention, even when the beats are predictable.
I often struggle to assess films like this. On the one hand, I find it far too easy to see the lines in which The Swimmers is coloring. On the other, I can sense a more esoteric and adventurous film peeking out along the margins. Ultimately, I expect it to find and engage a large audience, especially when it premieres on Netflix, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that audience moved by it — so moved in fact, that with the right set of circumstances we could see the film take a similar awards season path to last year’s CODA. To be clear, that’s not a slight: even for a film that might feel relatively “safe,” cinematically speaking, the crowd-pleasing version of this particular story should more than earn its place in the conversation.