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Written by Julia Cox
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
121 minutes, rated M
In selected cinemas now/Netflix from November 3
Review by JAKE WILSON
The surname “Nyad” comes from the same root as “naiad,” meaning “water nymph” – a connection not lost on the US endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, played by Annette Bening as a born over-achiever sincerely enthralled by her own legend.
Nyad’s athletic peak was in the mid-1970s, when she broke numerous world records for swimming in open water (around the island of Manhattan, for instance). But the story told here follows her from the age of around sixty, when she started training anew for the swim that got away: across the Straits of Florida from Havana to Key West, more than five times the distance of the English Channel.
Annette Bening as Diana Nyad, left, and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll.Credit: Kimberley French/Netflix
While ocean swimming is inherently solitary, Diana has a companion in her quest: her coach and soulmate Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), who’s roughly the same age but has a scrappy, street-kid energy (Foster is as loose as she’s ever been, as if freed by not having to be the star). These two aren’t a couple, though they were long ago. Just the same, this is unquestionably a love story, and also a romantic comedy, premised on the credible theory that a mythological being up close is bound to be a pain in the neck.
Indeed, the Diana of the film is the kind of person you have to adore in order not to find insufferable: a jock with the temperament of a diva, and no sense of humour. “To be rendered powerless by stupid jellyfish – it’s beneath me.” The adorable part is the innocence of her egoism, laid plain early on when she holds forth on her swimming feats to a group of children, who wind up spellbound as if recognising one of their own.
Bonnie seems like the grounded one, but appearances are deceptive: as the high priestess of a cult, she has as much invested in Diana’s greatness as Diana does herself. (None of this may be exactly healthy, but as the film asks by implication, what have you done lately?) Their coach-athlete relationship is an extension of their pre-existing dynamic, aptly summed up in the word “handler”: Bonnie’s role is to steer her friend around and help her negotiate the one thing she isn’t good at, which is everyday life.
“Where’s the excellence?” is Diana’s catch-cry. In this case, it’s mainly in the acting. Over-achievers in their own field, Bening and Foster are close to the whole show, with Rhys Ifans supplying back-up as a grizzled navigator. Otherwise, the directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have all the usual inspirational beats to hit; some of their storytelling choices are downright clumsy, including the flashbacks to the young Nyad (Anna Harriette Pittman), which fail to convey anything meaningful about her experience of sexual abuse.
Like all biopics, Nyad omits certain facts that would complicate the picture (if you’re not already up to speed, I recommend leaving an Internet search until after). Like all biopics, too, it’s a fiction as well as a “true story”. It could be taken as an upbeat companion piece to Todd Field’s mordant Tar, another portrait of a female sacred monster that prompts the question of how we would judge the same behaviour in a man.
It’s also something of a progressive fairy tale: while Diana stays a fierce individualist to the end, the team assembled to get her to the finish line is a veritable rainbow coalition, a point brought home by a final echo of Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village.” Partly for that reason, I found her easier to cheer for than most charismatic crazies who spring to mind.
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