The Swimmers: an affecting if baggy true-life tale of triumph against the odds

Dramatising the extraordinary story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini’s epic swim across the Aegean Sea, towing a boatload of refugees behind them, Sally El Hosaini’s return to feature filmmaking is moving and fitfully visually inspired, but has a significant pacing problem.

Nathalie and Manal Issa as Yusra and Sarah Mardini in The Swimmers (2022)

Many athletes have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve their dreams of competing at the Olympic Games, but few can tell a story to match Yusra Mardini’s. Having fled war-torn Syria in August 2015, Yusra and her sister Sarah embarked on a dangerous smugglers’ route across the Aegean Sea in a flimsy dinghy with eighteen other refugees. When the boat’s motor failed and it began taking on water, the two sisters tethered themselves to the craft and swam towards land, hauling their fellow refugees behind them for three hours. It was an astonishing feat of endurance and survival, and the fact that Yusra then went on to swim at Rio 2016 – a stateless competitor in the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team – is the kind of happy ending that only the most shameless screenwriter would dream up.

Having been handed a true story that feels tailor-made for an uplifting tale of triumph against the odds, that’s exactly what director Sally El Hosaini and screenwriter Jack Thorne have delivered. Their film is a solid recounting of the Mardinis’ odyssey that hits the required narrative beats efficiently without ever really stirring the emotions in a major way. It feels like a true story that has had its edges sanded down, although the inherent drama of the source material and the polish of the presentation ensures it is mostly a pleasurable viewing experience.

Making a confident return to feature directing a decade after her tighter and more nuanced debut My Brother the Devil (2012), El Hosaini brings some strong visual ideas to the table. The Swimmers begins in Syria a few years before the sisters’ departure, when the conflict is still far away enough from them to feel slightly unreal. As Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sarah (Manal Issa, Nathalie’s real-life sister) party on a rooftop in Damascus, missiles fired towards the city of Homs streak across the night sky behind them, and when the missiles do start to land in their vicinity, one crashes into the pool that Yusra is competing in, with the young swimmer and the projectile facing each other underwater in a suspended moment.

At this point, the girls’ father (Ali Suliman) finally relents and allows them to leave for Germany, where they plan to apply for asylum. Having had his own Olympic dreams shattered as a young man, Ezzat Mardini attempts to shape his daughters in his own image, which the two girls react to in divergent ways. Yusra is a serious teen who is completely devoted to achieving her goals and refuses to let anything knock her off course. Her older sister Sarah is more restless and rebellious, increasingly feeling that the dream their father imposed on them is not for her, and ultimately seeking another path through life. In the wake of Mahsa Amini’s recent real-life death in Iran, the sight of a young Muslim woman chopping off her hair to forge her own identity has taken on an additional layer of resonance.

The Swimmers contains a number of these arresting and affecting moments, and the sparky chemistry shared by the Issa sisters powers a vital core of authentic feeling, but the film has a significant pacing problem. At 134 minutes, it feels unnecessarily baggy for what is a fairly straightforward tale, and I could feel my patience and interest waning as the focus finally shifted towards the Rio Olympics. Although El Hosaini gives her other set-pieces a visual punch, there’s little she can do to elevate these climactic scenes beyond sports movie clichés, with the training montage (in a film already overly padded with pop-scored montages) feeling particularly rote.

Since The Swimmers’s narrative peaks early, nothing that El Hosaini and Thorne give us in the second half can match the astonishment of watching two teenage girls save a boatful of people through sheer force of will. The odds of any of them surviving such a crossing must have been vanishingly small, and when Yusra overhears some bitchy athletes suggesting she shouldn’t be in Rio, her sister reminds her: “You SHOULD be at the bottom of the sea.” The most haunting moment in the film comes just after the Mardinis and their fellow refugees have reached land and find life jackets, shoes and other paraphernalia littering the coastline as far as the eye can see. The Swimmers may be a film that celebrates a unique and inspiring achievement, but it is at its most powerful when reminding us of the countless others who have made and continue to make this perilous journey.

► The Swimmers is in UK cinemas from 11 November, and will be available to view on Netflix from 23 November.