Some reviewers have dismissed The Swimmers as ‘a feelgood movie’, but that, I feel, is doing it an immense disservice. While it’s based on the true story of Syrian sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini, Sally El Hossaini’s film – which she co-wrote with Jack Thorne – takes its viewers through some pretty distressing experiences before we finally experience any sense of uplift.
We first encounter the two girls in their home city of Damascus, where they are enjoying the exuberant nightlife and, by day, are training hard with their father, a swimming coach, whose greatest dream is to see his two daughters representing their country in the next Olympics. But the year is 2012 and a war is inexorably approaching. When next we see the family, it’s 2015, they are experiencing a far less privileged lifestyle and are swiftly coming to the conclusion that there is no hope of ever achieving happiness in Syria. So together with their young cousin, Nizar, (Ahmed Malek), Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) take a flight to Turkey and subsequently set off on a hazardous journey, hoping to make it to Hanover, where they have a friend who they know will take them in.
But for Yusra, those long-cherished dreams of being an Olympic swimmer have never faded away…
We’ve all heard of the perils suffered by refugees attempting to escape war-torn countries, but The Swimmers makes them feel horribly palpable A terrifying journey across the sea to Lesbos in an old inflatable boat is only the first in a whole series of nail-biting disasters that ensue. And it seems that wherever the sisters and their companions travel, there are ruthless people who are more happy to make a swift buck from their desperate situation. Is there anybody they can trust? And even when they finally reach their destination, there are more torments they’ll need to endure before they can have any sense of belonging in their chosen home. There’s a genuine sense of the scale of the issues, too. A scene where a group of refugees wander across a Greek beach that is literally littered with thousands of discarded lifejackets is – quite literally – breathtaking.
Real life sisters, the Issas offer delightful portrayals of the central characters and there’s an appealing performance from Matthias Schweighöff as Sven, the swimming coach who accepts Yusra as a member of his swimming team, and helps her to pursue her ambitions all the way to the 2020 Olympics in Rio. For a little while, the ‘feel good’ tag feels well-earned.
But this being a true story, grim reality soon intervenes. A post-credit message informs us what has really happened to Sara since 2020, and the smile fades from my face. The Swimmers is a brilliantly told tale of human endurance that’s also extremely informative, and the Mardini sisters’ incredible journey keeps me hooked throughout.