The Swimmers Review

Plot: Based on a true story, follows the journey from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Two young sisters embark on a harrowing journey as refugees, putting both their hearts and champion swimming skills to heroic use.

Review: I will be honest and say I was jaded going into The Swimmers. Countless films have been made over the years about characters facing adversity in the form of war, abuse, and crime as well as underdog tales about athletes overcoming insurmountable odds to reach the pinnacle of their sport. In both cases, movies about either story have a tendency to be overwrought or disingenuous. Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers is neither of those things. Managing to bridge both narratives to tell a refugee story that is also a sports movie, this film is as inspiring as it is gut-wrenching as it makes you cheer for the characters to persevere against odds that are both life-threatening and life-affirming. The Swimmers is a very good movie that is hard to watch without being hard to enjoy.

The Swimmers review

Based on the true story of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, The Swimmers follows the Syrian teenager (played by newcomer Nathalie Issa) as she trains under her father Ezzat (Ali Suliman), along with her sister Sara (Manal Issa). Both sisters are world-class athletes and Ezzat has high hopes they will make it to the Olympics to represent Syria, even as Russian bombs descend on nearby Damascus. Once the threat of attack hits close to home in a harrowing sequence involving a bomb in a swimming pool, Sara convinces her parents to allow their cousin Nizar Ahmed Malek) to help the sisters flee to safety in Germany. Reluctantly, the trio is allowed to leave Syria and so begins a harrowing journey of thousands of miles and the start of their refugee quest.

While the film spends the first half hour focused on Yusra and Sara’s training amidst the violent war surrounding their country, the next hour of the film shifts to a road movie. At first, the journey seems challenging, but when they must cross the Aegean Sea in a loaded dinghy that is succumbing to too much weight, the stakes present themselves in harrowing reality. Despite being only rated PG-13, The Swimmers is able to genuinely convey the subhuman conditions that refugees must survive to make their way to freedom without relying on shock value to provoke a response from the viewer. This film packs a serious punch without needing to show bloodshed or dead bodies to make a point. Just the image of Yusra and her fellow refugees walking through a field of thousands of discarded lifevests tells more than a gaping wound ever could.

Once they reach the refugee camps in Germany, the film splits Yusra and Sara’s journeys. Sara becomes focused on the complexity of applying for asylum and bringing the rest of her family over from Syria while Yusra enlists with a local swimming coach named Sven (Army of the Dead‘s Matthias Schweighofer). Sven helps Yusra hone the skills that were diminished on her journey and helps her prepare to represent the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Drawing on classic elements of sports films like training montages, Yusra’s journey triumphantly follows her to compete in Brazil. But, the point of this story is not about winning Gold or even representing Syria but instead blends the shockingly epic journey of a refugee from home to a completely different place a world away.

The Swimmers review

Written by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials), The Swimmers is unlike any sports or refugee story I have seen before. The film is acted predominantly in English with the characters slipping between their native tongue and back again throughout the film. It also has found two great leads in the Issa sisters. Playing siblings on screen, the two actresses did not even know how to swim before joining this production. Both imbue their real-life counterparts with a sense of honor and respect for their life goals as well as reflect on what it means to have been a refugee when so many places turn them away without a second thought. There are beautiful shots throughout this film that El Hosaini frames in a manner that is both haunting and stunning and had me feeling both lucky to live where I do and motivated me to want to do something to enact change in the world, much like the real Yusra and Sara Mardini have done as goodwill ambassadors.

The Swimmers is a film about overcoming adversity and is a triumphant blend of sports underdog tale as well as a powerful indictment of how refugees are treated around the world. By conveying these parallel stories without needing to shock the audience, Sally El Hosaini has created a beautiful ode to the Mardini sisters, two heroes who not only helped save the lives of those on their journey to Germany but long after the events depicted in this film. Filmed in the actual locations Yusra and Sara traversed, this is an inspiring film that deserves to be watched by as many people as possible. If you watch The Swimmers and are not jarred into taking action, I would be very surprised. This is a movie that at times is hard to watch but is incredibly rewarding as well.

The Swimmers



About the Author

5882 Articles Published

Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.