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Swimming with Men

★★★★ - DAILY MAIL 

- Amazingly, there isn’t just one film out about male synchronised swimming this year; there are two, a fact that, once discovered, filled me with absolute dread.

For starters, I wasn’t sure male synchronised swimming was really ‘a thing’ but, if it was (and it turns out it definitely is), it just seemed such an obvious comedy target for inevitable, lazy jokes about painful hair depilation, rictus smiles and the sheer silliness of big burly blokes thinking they were suddenly Esther Williams while wearing noseclips.

Thankfully, I missed Sink Or Swim, the French comic take on the splashy subject, at Cannes but its British counterpart, Swimming With Men, has just been released and, to my great surprise, very good it is too, successfully managing to be both funny and poignantly moving. 

Directed by Oliver Parker (Johnny English RebornDad’s Army and the St Trinian’s films, as well as three classy Oscar Wilde adaptations) and starring Rob Brydon, it turns out to be as much about male mid-life disillusion and despair as frantically paddling around in watery circles trying to point your toe at the swimming pool ceiling while trying not to drown.

Although it does have its silly moments, for the most part the comedy is intelligent and well observed rather than knockabout, underwater slapstick.

Brydon plays the Reggie Perrin-like figure of Eric, a middle-aged tax accountant who is still something of a whizz at maths but is bored with his repetitive City job and suspects his newly elected local politician wife (Jane Horrocks) is having an affair.

When things get too much for Eric, he finds solace in two things, swimming lengths at his local pool and gin.

It’s while taking a rest from the former that he sinks miserably to the bottom of the pool, only to find seven chaps already sitting there waving cheerfully back at him.

And it is while he is heading for several of the latter afterwards that he points out to them that, mathematically speaking, the complex geometrical manoeuvre he’s seen them practising will be impossible as long as their male synchro team has an odd number of members. ‘It’s just maths,’ he says wearily. ‘Most things are eventually.’

You can see where we are heading. Sure enough, Eric is soon the team’s latest recruit, discovering that the first rule of swim club is, inevitably, ‘never talk about swim club’. Oh, and that there’s an unofficial world championship coming up too.

Parker draws perfectly pitched performances from his well-chosen cast. 

Brydon wrings just the right amount of pathos out of Eric; Jim Carter is ever more touching as the club’s oldest member, whose jokey banter hides a secret sadness; and  as the down-but-not-quite-out Luke shows that what Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett have recently shown they can all do in middle age, he can do every bit as well. 

Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays and Thomas Turgoose – as the other main swimmers – complete this gently effective comedy ensemble, with the likeable Charlotte Riley as the squad’s determined coach providing the hint of romance.

The film is at its most touching and telling when it’s quietly exploring the strengths and weaknesses of male friendship.

Not everything works. The path to the world championships is rather more fun than the event itself, and Eric’s marital problems could feel a little more real. 

But Parker comes up with a sweet way of sending us out with a smile on our faces. Well, middle-aged male faces, anyway.

- DAILY MAIL (UK)

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