Oliver Parker’s Swimming With Men: a chlorine-scented male spin on Calendar Girls

A throwback to those late-1990s movies about disenfranchised males regaining self-respect through unusual hobbies: The Full Monty and Brassed Off.

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Esther Williams, the synchronised swimmer known as “Hollywood’s Mermaid”, was scathing about the movies that made her a star: “All they ever did for me at MGM was to change my leading men and the water in the pool.” There’s a similar feeling of déjà vu to the British comedy Swimming With Men. The faces may be different but this is a throwback to those late-1990s movies about disenfranchised males regaining self-respect through unusual hobbies: unemployed welders became strippers in The Full Monty and miners struggled to keep their colliery band together in Brassed Off. Realism fought it out in those films with idealistic yearning, but no such conflict exists here. Feel-good is declared the winning tone within minutes. The rest of the film is just splashing around in the shallow end.

It’s not without its pleasures. This is the first lead film role for the comic actor Rob Brydon, a kind of Welsh Jack Lemmon, and while he may not be a complex presence, he is a likeable one. He plays Eric, a middle-aged accountant with a face like a deflated lilo. Feeling washed-up and unwanted now that his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) has a new job as a local councillor, he walks out of his marriage (not entirely plausibly it should be said) and heads for the local swimming pool. Where he found one in London that is virtually empty at 6pm, rather than a thrashing soup of legs and elbows, is unclear. He plunges straight to the bottom, that hiding place for despairing males since at least The Graduate

But what is that mismatched assortment of waggling legs he can see in the distance? Why, it’s a men’s synchronised swimming team who meet every week as a protest against the meaninglessness of their lives and the tyranny of ageing. The group members, including the construction manager Colin (Daniel Mays) and the dentist Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), profess to leave their private lives at the door, but it would take a less conventional screenwriter than Aschlin Ditta to resist colouring in the back-stories in various shades of pathos.

Soon we discover that Ted (Jim Carter) is a widower and Luke (Rupert Graves) a divorcee; the purpose of the youthful tearaway Tom (Thomas Turgoose) is clearly to entice a younger audience to a film that would otherwise be a chlorine-scented Calendar Girls.

Eric brings his accountancy brain to the group (“You don’t have an apex variable”) and starts wearing a paperclip on his nose at the office, practising his pool moves in a retread of the dole-queue dance scene from The Full Monty. Once the team is on its way to the (Unofficial) Men’s Synchronised Swimming World Championships, the score’s composer Charlie Mole tries on different musical hats before settling on Ennio Morricone-style harmonicas and twangy guitars. Presumably this is in honour of the championships, which take place in Milan – at a pool that looks suspiciously like an ordinary British one.

To preclude any charges of misogyny in this overly male film, the men have been given a female coach, Susan (Charlotte Riley). More mysterious is the inclusion in the group of two members, Silent Bob and New Guy, who don’t have any lines let alone personalities. The actors concerned (Chris Jepson and Ronan Daly) look as embarrassed as we are that they’re here simply to make up the numbers.

The film is ostensibly about men unlearning traditional modes of behaviour and expressing themselves tenderly, so perhaps it isn’t the best idea for the triumphant ending to show Eric punching a man he considers to be his rival in love; while Luke gloatingly kisses another man’s girlfriend in front of him.

But then it’s an odd duck all round, down to the possible Leave leanings. Finding himself outnumbered in a vote, Ted says, “I’m against this but I’m not one to stand in the way of democracy”, while the group’s rallying cry is: “Embrace the chaos!” If that isn’t explicitly pro-Brexit, it smacks at least of “let’s just try to make the best of this”. A fitting motto for a movie which could be worse but ought to be better.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit