At nearly two and a half hours, Netflix’s Syrian migrant drama “The Swimmers” is a long sit that goes to extraordinary efforts — from a treacly score to constant reminders that its protagonists are, you know, swimmers — to try and make you feel good, or at least feel anything. The problem is that the audience isn’t taken by the same rah-rah spiritedness that director Sally El Hosaini sets out to achieve, partially through overheated use of the pop-powered anthems of Sia. Who knew that radio-friendly hits like “Titanium” and “Unstoppable” could serve as potent theme songs for a drama about a pair of Syrian sisters who flee their war-bombed homeland for a better life in Europe?
“The Swimmers,” which is written by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne, is based on the true story of the Olympian-anointed Mardini sisters, who left their battle-torn Damascus in 2015 by boat on a treacherous path to Germany, where there’s hope things might be better. The movie, centered on Sara and Yusra, who share a deep bond but also a scrappy competitiveness, as established in opening shots of the pair dunking and holding each other underwater in a public swimming pool, is well-meaning. The script unfortunately does little to flesh out who these people are beyond their necessity to leave a broken world. Actresses Nathalie Issa (starring as Yusra) and Manal Issa (playing Sara) try their best at the material, which lacks an emotional pull. As urgent and necessary as their story is, it also feels too familiar on cinematic terms.
Sara and Yusra are both exceptional swimmers, schooled by their disciplining father (Ali Suliman) who pushes them to outshine their peers and often each other. But the world around them is being bombed out by civil war, as government protests incite violence in Damascus, so the family decides it’s best for the sisters to leave and hopefully eke out a better life in Europe. The process is grueling, beginning with a flight to Istanbul that then leads to a smuggling operation across water and land. Sara and Yusra, along with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) and a group of other refugees looking for asylum elsewhere, take a dinghy across the Mediterranean Sea. Things fall apart along the way, as water fills the raft and the angry waves of the sea challenge their journey. El Hosaini’s direction is cacophonous in these moments, which don’t come across as visceral as they should.
“The Swimmers” tells a recognizably human and moving story of migrants making their way to better times, but the beats become so recognizable that, knowing this is a Netflix film, you only wish you could fast-forward the cursor across plot beats that exist to fulfill themselves. After terrifying encounters, natural disasters, and a sudden sexual assault that comes out of nowhere and is left unexamined, Sara and Yusra finally arrive in Berlin. It’s there that they’re taken under the wing of swim coach Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), who sees potential in Yusra even as Sara starts to give up on her own swimming career. Yusra and Sven ready themselves for the Olympics, a lifelong dream of the Madrinis’. But this is again when the movie starts to fall back into predictability. When Sven, emboldened by Yusra’s envigored determination post-the long journey to Germany, says, “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” you know what’s coming. Cue the training montage set to propulsive, jaunty music.
There are some striking images in the film, from Sara and Yusra cast under the sunlight seeping through a latticed tent somewhere on the latest limbo of their trek, its patterns pasting houndstooth shapes across their bodies, to Sara (the “powerhouse” of the family, as her father tells her) staring down a missile that’s fallen in the swimming pool, underwater, during a Syrian air raid. When Sara, Yusra, and their companions finally reach land in Serbia, piles of strewn lifejackets line the beach. It’s a powerful image, but the movie seems unwilling to engage with the horrible realities of the Syrian refugee crisis beyond these visual metaphors.
Yusra and Sara’s relationship is clearly a complex one, but the actors, while compelling, can’t quite get to the bone of who they are beyond their athletic ambitions. There’s a curious and touching exchange where they question why they even pursued swimming in the first place, beyond parental behest, or if they even enjoy it. It’s left unexplored. By the time Sara makes it to the 2016 Olympics, after a falling out and then reconciliation with Yusra, built upon a mountain of maudlin platitudes, it’s hard to care as you start to see the inevitabilities coming. In the climactic scene, as Yusra does elegant butterfly strokes in an Olympic relay race, there’s no suspense. As the viewer you know she is obviously going to win the race, and that we are going through the motions of storytelling.
“The Swimmers” gets too caught up in the waves of telling a feel-good story about our inner strength, but the audience ultimately can’t share in the enthusiasm. There’s a sense of the filmmakers rooting for these two strong-willed women, sure, but do we? In one scene where Sara decides to cut her long, curly hair off, you can all but hear the movie saying, “You go girl.” But to what ends? No plethora of Sia ballads can make us root for an uncompelling story.
“The Swimmers” world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere in select theaters and on Netflix November 23.