The Swimmers is a respectful and accessible refugee story focussing predominantly on the Mardini sisters – the titular athletes – and chronicling their 2015 journey from Syria to Berlin. The longish runtime is more than justified by this subject matter, though the pacing and structure are a tad chaotic – perhaps inevitably. With Sara Mardini facing smuggling charges and conflict ongoing in Syria, this story is far from over.

Preoccupation with the sisters’ Olympic dreams overwhelms the rushed final act, which lacks tension as it recounts such recent sporting history. The same can’t be said for the earlier travelling portions. Though we know Sara and Yusra made it to Europe, the detailed depiction of endurance in the face of peril at sea and over land is rightfully grisly, and gripping. El Hosaini and Jack Thorne’s screenplay builds convincing relationships among varied migrant characters, with supporting actors conveying touching human connections without much screentime.

Unfortunately this deftness isn’t in evidence everywhere. The first hour is awash with Netflix’s stylistic tics – sentimental soft-focus, jarring poppy soundtracking and too many flashbacks that repeat earlier scenes. The Syria-set opening starkly establishes Sara and Yusra as polar opposites, and later conflict between them can feel contrived or simplistic. Real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa are faultless though, and the dynamics between their characters could have been better realised through more patient filmmaking.

The Swimmers tries to represent too much at once: one family’s story, the realities of forced migration, and the crushing scale of the refugee crisis. In this regard, aerial shots of a landmass formed from discarded lifejackets speak volumes.

Despite its quality performances, The Swimmers isn’t as consistently affecting as recent documentary Flee. Still, it brings mainstream attention to another deserving migrant story. It’s just a shame it does so with such straightforward and unimaginative filmmaking.



CAST: Manal Issa, Nathalie Issa, Ahmed Malek, Ali Suliman, James Krishna Floyd, Matthias Schweighöfer

DIRECTOR: Sally El Hosaini

WRITERS: Sally El Hosaini, Jack Thorne

SYNOPSIS: A story of the miraculous journey made by swimming sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini who fled as refugees from war-torn Syria all the way to the 2016 Rio Olympics.