The Swimmers is an old-fashioned biopic, a roller coaster of emotions spread out over an unabashed 135 minutes. The storytelling forces viewers into the shoes of young refugees whose lives are torn apart by war and who in no way deserve the difficult twists of fate thrown at them. Whatever shortcomings viewers find with the film, the real-life story is impossible not to appreciate.
The film is based on the experiences of sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini, who endured a harrowing escape from war-torn Syria to seek asylum in Europe. Yusra is a competitive swimmer who went on to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The sisters’ swimming skills literally saved their lives, and the lives of others, on a barely-floating raft during their trek to Europe via the Aegean Sea.
The Mardini sisters are played by two other real-life sisters, the Lebanese actresses Manal and Nathalie Issa. While other aspects of the film’s casting might elicit critique – for example, the way characters regularly switch into English, or the actual nationalities of actors versus characters – casting sisters was a tremendously insightful move that brings to life the girls’ sibling connection, so fundamental to their survival.
Manal is especially riveting as the older sister, the tough and fiercely independent Sara. Their father (played in the film by Palestinian actor Ali Suliman), a former swimmer himself, coached both girls to become competitive swimmers, but Nathalie was the one who showed the discipline and talent to succeed at the sport. This made Nathalie her father’s natural favorite, and in the film both her dad and her older sister are overly protective of her, making her internal transformation from protected younger sister to determined Olympic athlete all the more compelling.
The film opens on the girls living an apparently comfortable life in suburban Damascus in 2011. There are hints of turbulence to come in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring countries, but the girls’ mother insists “nothing like that” can happen in Syria. Tension is set up from the start in a foreshadowing opening scene of boys in a neighborhood pool diving for a bomb-shaped toy at the bottom of a pool.
Flash forward four years and, after yet another friend their age is killed in the constant bombs plaguing Syria and the family endures a particularly scary near-death incident, the girls convince their parents to let them emigrate to Europe together with a cousin, Nizar (Ahmed Malek). The journey is not what they expect. Despite having promised their parents they would make the trek by land, they wind up on a raft trying to cross the Aegean. When the raft starts taking on water and everyone on board is at risk, the girls heroically jump into the water and swim through the night.
The watery nightmare is captured in an emotionally exhausting 10-minute sequence of the film. It starts with a fade to black leading into a montage of panicked moments on the raft, where the seacraft is taking on more and more water. A mix of noisy eye-level shots inside the increasingly chaotic raft and hushed birds-eye views of the girls swimming and floating in the water make the sequence extremely difficult to watch. We empathize when the group, finally safe on land on a Greek island, tear into the hazardous raft and rip it to pieces.
From there, the passage doesn’t get much easier as the multinational group from the raft walks for days and makes deals with random strangers to get rides or be taken to safe border crossings. When they finally (spoiler alert) get to Germany, they’re put up in makeshift cubicle housing for months and months as they wait for their papers to get processed. It’s during this time that Yusra, fed up, turns to exercise to pass the time and find a goal to keep moving forward, pulling from her long years of disciplined training. She eventually makes her way to a pool and convinces a local trainer (Army of Thieves’ always charismatic Matthias Schweighöfer) to take her on, eventually leading her and Sara to better housing and professional training for Yusra to compete.
The film offers plenty of commentary on the treatment of refugees, millions of whom have made the often-fatal trek to Europe in the last decade-plus, from the Coast Guard refusing to save the people on the raft (“it’s not their policy”), to dishonest or violent traffickers taking advantage of their desperation, to bureaucrats who can’t bend the rules no matter the individual situation.
The film balances its three parts – Syria, the journey, and Germany to Rio – without prioritizing or minimizing any one of them. Some scenes could feel overly manipulative or too slick for some viewers, but the structure gives the story room to breathe and the film lands its many emotional beats. The filmmakers – including director Sally El Hosaini, co-scripter Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes) and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title, among others – knew they had captivating material with this real-life story, and they’ve done the Mardini girls justice.