Ahh, Swim Club. I’ll admit I’m bored with Fight Club-esque rules. It’s like the endless variations of Notes To Self and the daily tallies of cigarettes, glasses of Chardonnay and calories consumed that we’ve had to endure since the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary over 20 years ago.
The men’s synchronised swimming team that almost-divorced Eric (Rob Brydon) joins does indeed have Swim Club rules; what goes in the pool stays in the pool, though I’m sure there’s a Health & Safety directive they’re breaking there.
But despite cliches like this, and a predictable story about (mostly) middle-aged men alternating between drowning their midlife sorrows in the pub and almost drowning in the public baths, Swimming With Men is more nuanced than I was expecting; and whereas it follows a wholly expected trajectory, it is also at times surprisingly inventive. There are little diversions, jokes and scenes that add up to more than simply a tick-box movie about middle-aged men.
I did feel a sense of deja vu though, on first hearing about Oliver Parker’s new comedy. It’s only two months since the Cannes premiere of French movie Le Grand Bain (English language title Sink Or Swim), another story about an all-male synchronised swimming team, complete with a shouty young woman keeping them under control and a visit to the Men’s World Synchronised Swimming Championships.
And it did make me ponder how often we get what I would call fraternal film twins. In 2017 we had two wartime Winston movies, Darkest Hour and Churchill. Currently in UK cinemas is Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Whitney, after last year’s Nick Broomfield-helmed Whitney: Can I Be Me. There’s also another Christopher Robin movie in the offing, after last year’s Margot Robbie starrer.
I’m just waiting for a couple of competing Groundhog Day remakes before all the scriptwriters in the world implode from holding in the other 50% of stories they’re not getting to tell.
In Swimming with Men the team is already established when Eric joins, though he’s instrumental in adding structure and order to their routines. An accountant, his working life is a case of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, everywhere.
Knowing that most questions come down to maths, he explains their routine doesn’t work because they don’t have the right number of participants (it’s all to do with pivots but I didn’t really understand it if I’m honest).
Eric’s marriage is collapsing, though it all seems self-destructively engineered by him. His wife, newly-elected local councillor Heather (Jane Horrocks) is bemused more than anything else by his behaviour, though much of it is driven by Eric’s consuming jealousy of Heather’s smarmy and extremely handsome town hall colleague (the gorgeous Nathaniel Parker – I may be biased here).
There are eight men in the team once Eric joins. Great for performance symmetry, but too many to flesh out all the characters in 96 minutes. Writer Aschlin Ditta gets round this by having two members who don’t do much. Silent Bob (Chris Jepson) is always there and sometimes naked. The other is simply known as The New Guy (Ronan Daly) and has been since he joined a year ago.
Tom (Thomas Turgoose) is the youngest and a bit of a lout, his fitness routine consisting of being chased by coppers. (“Robin Hood in Reeboks” Ted calls him, after Tom claims he steals to give to the poor.)
Cynical dentist Kurt (Adeel Akhtar) and lovelorn divorced estate agent Luke (Rupert Graves, my most enduring movie crush since he starred in Maurice in 1987) have been friends since school; Colin (Daniel Mays) is a former youth team footballer who works on a building sight and has taken Tom under his wing since he caught him thieving. Ted (Jim Carter) is recently widowed.
Soon they’re training for the World Championships. And I did wish Parker and Le Grand Bain director Gilles Lellouche had got together and filmed both teams appearing at the same one.
Susan (Charlotte Riley), a retired synchronised swimmer and now children’s swimming teacher, comes on board when the men realise they need to up their game.
She goes from lovable friendly supporter to hard-driving, shouting (but still lovable) team trainer. “I want rage! I want middle aged angst!” she yells and I have expected them to reply “When do we want it? When we’ve finished clearing out the shed!”
Although they need to train hard, like the British record-beating skier Eddie The Eagle they’re actually not terrible by any means; I was certainly impressed as they circled underwater and back up again like a giant elongated wheel, feet round the neck of the person behind them.
Instead people’s reactions are more based on the shock factor that the team is men-only. Shock that later – and I’m sure I’m not spoiling this for you, as who wants to go and see a plucky British comedy starring National Treasures where they start off dreadful, show no improvement and have to give back their Government grants at the end – turns to something akin to awe.
All of the men have worries they’re trying to escape from, though the film is rather half-hearted in its explorations of these. And I quite liked that, even if it was accidental. Most of us have issues we’re running from, and often they’re mundane and prosaic, only necessitating a happy amble to the nearest pub or a slow jog to the local sports centre.
It’s also genuinely body positive. While they’re not at their physical peak (“The Wheat Intolerant Village People” one man calls them when he sees them in all their rather pudgy glory) I loved it when Susan ordered them to stop holding their stomachs in and just embrace the bodies they’ve got.
There are a couple of cliched big speeches. But the men are endearing and believably different. Akhtar is particularly good as Kurt – cynical, funny and realistic, as he was in his show-stealing performance as Mohammed in the otherwise rather turgid Victoria and Abdul earlier this year.
Mostly gently humorous rather than side-splitting, Swimming With Men does still have some good lines. Luke is jealous of Susan’s handsome blond male friend, a stalwart of the world-beating Swedish team. The other men support him in ways that only nice people can: “They take our women” says one, solemnly. But we all know what really emasculates British men: “They build our wardrobes”, says another.
Watch the Swimming with Men trailer below: