To crudely summarise how the My Brother the Devil director Sally El Hosaini has chosen to adapt the story of Syrian refugee turned Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, one could easily go to her soundtrack choice: the loud, anthemic radio pop of Sia. There’s little room for nuance or subtlety in her music, she wants you to feel big emotions in a big way, and there’s equally little room for either here, a Netflix drama that plays more like a Disney sports movie.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that formula, and there are few harder narratives to resist than one of an underdog done good, but El Hosaini, working with a script from the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne, finds herself going for the broadest strokes throughout, which gives her film the feel of a slightly anonymous Hollywoodisation, efficient in parts but ultimately lacking, a film aiming to be liked by everyone but loved by no one.
The story she’s working with is one that, no matter how it’s told, will prove compelling. Two sisters, Yusra and Sara (played, in a neat on-paper get, by real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa) find their life in Damascus upturned by the encroaching chaos of 2015, fears of what’s to come replaced by the horror of what’s in front of them. While some of the early foreboding is a little clumsy (poolside screams are revealed to be just that while a foam rocket gets thrown to the bottom of the pool), it does serve the story well, and the refugee narrative in general, to show audiences just how boringly normal everything can be before bombs start dropping. There are effective, if sparse, moments in the first act – the girls dance on a rooftop bar as explosions ignite the sky at a distance, a run-in with soldiers on the bus becomes a nauseous act of molestation – but it’s clear early on that we are in the hands of those who think more works better than less.
The journey the girls are then forced to take is a tense and immersive one, the two sent on a long and dangerous trek to Germany with their cousin, relying on shady contacts and precarious transport. Scenes of them in an overloaded inflatable boat are frightening but also frustrating, with some over-directed flourishes proving to be distracting, along with the dreaded return of Sia, it all seeming a little uninspired after a similarly fraught sequence was told so creatively in Flee. Flaws aside, we are inevitably swept up in the unfair chaos of their ongoing travels and eager to see them find safety. For Yusra, happiness isn’t just tied to where she ends up but also what she ends up doing. The pair had been trained by their father to become professional swimmers, and while Sara started to lose interest, Yusra is determined to make it to the Olympics.
It’s in the final, rushed, act when the film swerves off on to the road to Rio, by which time our patience is starting to stretch. The bloated 134-minute run time is in line with a general sense of overkill throughout, from an overemphatic score to some moments of overacting to pieces of oversimplified dialogue, but there’s still so much that feels underdeveloped, mostly when it comes to Sara’s life and her wants and needs. When the film comes to a close and the credits show us what happened to her after the Olympics, her activism and the dangers that came with it, we end up wishing the film had found more time to include it, given how much more dramatically appealing it sounds in comparison with the Olympic dream. While the beats often do work well within the sports movie setup, some of them feel a little too strong-armed near the end, the film straining for cheers it never truly earns.
The Issa sisters are both fine, a natural off-screen chemistry buoying moments when their dialogue feels more artificial, but the casting often feels more explained by the gimmick of their relationship rather than their suitability for the roles. Thorne’s script doesn’t expand their characters beyond the basest of types, and so the sisters are more defined by what happens to them then who they really are.
There’s an extraordinary story to be told here. It’s just a shame it had to be told in such an ordinary way.