The Mardini sisters were raised by their father Ezzat (Ali Suliman) to become swimmers. His dreams didn’t pan out, so he ensures that his three daughters attempt to reach his goal. Ezzat calls Yusra a powerhouse, as she’s dedicated to growing as a swimmer, spending much of he time in training or thinking about training. Meanwhile, Sara is less motivated, and far more interested in partying, which seems to be both a coping mechanism after losing so many of her friends to war, and also, a way to celebrate the life she has left. Yusra and Sara want to leave Syria in order to make their way to Berlin after learning that refugees under 18 that make it there can bring their family over.
Ezzat is against this plan, until a swim meet ends with Yusra coming face-to-face with an unexploded bomb while in the pool. Soon after, Yusa, Sara, and their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) leave Syria and attempt to make the trek to Berlin, which will send them running from police, crossing treacherous waters, and putting faith in shady people to get them where they need to go.
The trip to Berlin is defined by bad decision after bad decision. The first major choice comes as they attempt to get to the island of Lesbos, which means taking a patched-up dinghy alongside a large group of people. Even before they get on the dinghy, the sisters and the audience both know that they’ve made a huge mistake. However, this segment is still the most captivating part of The Swimmers, as Sally El Hosaini knows how to build the tension of the moment effectively, and shows the true danger and fear that went into this journey.
The rest of this journey is fascinating because the real Mardini sisters went through this, not necessarily because of anything El Hosaini or Thorne or doing to elevate this story. Instead, we get a step-by-step breakdown of what they went through, eventually leading them to their goal. From there, The Swimmers shifts into a more conventional sports film, as the sisters meet the swimming instructor Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), who is defined the same way as Ezzat was (failed swimmer attempting to help others who still have hope), and with little agency beyond his desire to help Yusra. But even though we know that Yusra gets to the Olympics, the journey to this point is far more riveting than this standard by-the-numbers sports film that pops up in the second half.
Sally El Hosaini and Jack Thorne also decide to throw in all sorts of heavy-handed metaphors for Yusra and Sara’s story throughout the film. For example, before they leave Syria, Yusra, Sara and their younger sister chase Yusra’s bird around her room, a bird who is finally free that can’t be put back in its cage. Even the absorbing boat sequence is susceptible to this. While the passengers are throwing all their belongings into the water to save their lives, Yusra struggles with dumping her swimming medals, almost as if she’s saying goodbye to her past life and her potential swimming dreams. Add to this a soundtrack full of on-the-nose music choices that completely describe what these characters are feeling at any given time, and El Hosaini and Thorne are holding the audience’s hand through this entire experience.
At 134 minutes, The Swimmers also feels its length, a film that drags—especially in that second half—when we should be invested in this staggering story. Both Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa are doing wonderful work as these sisters, and even when the film is hitting the same points over and over, they’re still keeping this movie afloat. But The Swimmers certainly would’ve been more effective if it had been tightened up and more focused. Even more damning is an explanation of what happened to these sisters after this story, hinting at a narrative that deserves to be told, but is mostly thrown away in the film’s final moments.
The Mardini sisters in real life went through hell, and their journey is incredibly powerful, considering what they went through. But The Swimmers only occasionally gives this story the power that it needs, instead, falling into easy tropes and an unfocused narrative. Yusra and Sara’s story could’ve been an extraordinary documentary, but instead, their story has been turned into a lackluster story that can’t tell this journey the way it deserves to be told.
The Swimmers is now available to stream on Netflix.