Whether it’s in the pool or the sea, swimming isn’t the most cinematic of sports and very few of the stories that have made it onto the big screen spring to mind. In Nyad, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin try to buck the trend in telling the true story of long-distance swimmer, Diana Nyad, a true force of nature if ever there was one.
A prodigiously successful swimmer in her youth, Nyad (Annette Bening) broke records by the score but retired after failing to achieve her greatest dream – the swim from Cuba to Florida. Her 60th birthday prompts her to try again, defying her age or any restrictions imposed by her body and, back in the water, she re-discovers her love of the sport and competing against both herself and the elements. It seems like an impossible dream but, with help from best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) who becomes her coach, she sets out to conquer the sea and herself. It’s on her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, that she becomes the first person to complete the swim, without the use of a shark cage.
In terms of distance, it’s just over 100 miles, which doesn’t sound much of a challenge. But the combination of unpredictable weather, changeable and ferocious currents, those sharks and other creatures, including jellyfish, make it a dangerous if not deadly undertaking and a detailed, scientific approach is the only way of tackling it. Nyad and Bonnie take on the services of John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans, initially channeling some of Robert Shaw’s Quint from Jaws), a real match for Nyad herself when it comes to determination and sheer stubbornness. Her regime for the first swim is tough – as are they all – and to avoid endless training sequences, the directors opt for newsreel clips showing the younger Nyad, as well as flashbacks to childhood abuse. But they’re too frequent and distract from the narrative, almost preventing us from becoming involved in what is actually an inspirational story.
The swim itself, despite some effective visual touches, isn’t as engaging as it could be either. But what captivates the audience is the relationship between Nyad and Bonnie, a close friendship between two gay women who care little for appearances – both Bening and Foster are stripped bare of make-up and their lines are there for all to see – but who enjoy a frank, sometimes brutally honest, relationship which never strays into romantic territory. Together, Bening and Foster are a compelling couple, often providing more drama than the swim itself and providing the dramatic tension and highlights that the film genuinely needs.
There are times when the film comes close to being almost a struggle as the swims themselves but, ultimately, it’s the Bening/Foster double act that keeps it, and the audience, going. Nyad herself, as she’s told, is a force: the film isn’t at that level, but as an inspirational portrait of both a solo athlete and a friendship as strong as any marriage, it’s unexpectedly moving and compassionate.
Biopic | London Film Festival, 10, 11 and 13 October 2023. UK cinemas, 20 October 2023. Netflix, 3 November 2023 | Netflix | Certificate: 15 | Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin | Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans.