This slightly odd comedy/drama is more about men than swimming. In fact, the plot device –some men forming a synchronised swimming group – is treated mostly for its inherent absurdity while the emotional focus stays on men and manhood in the modern age.
“Everybody knows” that many men face certain challenges in this post-feminist age. The old midlife crisis trope is given a modern twist with the evolution of relations between the sexes. About 40% of first marriages end in divorce (and it is usually women who instigate the split), so there are plenty of men who have a lot of adjusting to do. The other cliché is that they have trouble expressing their emotions in relationships, perhaps that is why some of them engage in ‘men’s sheds’ activities to stay connected. All this sociological background doesn’t need to be stated directly, but it frames the characters’ lives and our reading of them, nevertheless.
The story centres on Eric Scott (Rob Brydon, best known for The Trip series with Steve Coogan). He is a corporate accountant now totally stuck in his office routine. His wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) is spreading her wings and getting into local council politics. Their marriage has hit a flat spot. To the bafflement of both Heather and their son Billy, Eric decides he has to move out of the home for a bit. He also becomes mildly obsessed with the idea that Heather is having an affair. One day when swimming, Eric stumbles on a group who are practicing synchronised swimming. They have even formed a sort of swim club which has self-mocking rules a la Fight Club (rule one: you don’t talk about swim club etc). The film also takes as a rickety scaffold the sport movie tropes of getting a reluctant trainer, bonding as a team, showing us a training montage, nearly falling out with each other, and then climaxing with a final competition. It struggles to bring much ironic distance to this burden of the formulaic.
All of this should have been more fun somehow, and, indeed, some may find the film quirky enough and charming enough. Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband, Dorian Gray) is very British and, true to type, the tone here is somewhere between heroic failure and succeeding despite yourself. The British, after all, are good at laughing at themselves, perhaps because they have to be.
The cast of semi-familiar faces are all troopers; they take to the material in good faith, but they can’t shake off the sense of doing the best of a bad job. Obviously, The Full Monty somewhat haunts this effort. That film too had a strong ensemble and something real to say about the challenges of modern-day masculinity, but it also had much more heart. Fun though it is in places, Swimming with Men won’t pass into the cinematic canon as Monty did.