The "Alex" of the title is Alexandra "Alex" Archer, a teenage New Zealand schoolgirl who is attempting to qualify for the women's 100 metre freestyle swimming event at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. When I first saw this film I assumed, wrongly, that it was a biopic of a real person, similar to the 1979 Australian film "Dawn!" based on the life of Dawn Fraser. In fact, the story told here is purely fictitious and the film is actually based on a well-known novel. (The author, Tessa Duder, was herself a New Zealand swimming champion).
Despite the popularity of the original novel in New Zealand, the film was not a great box-office success when released in 1992, and I think that there may be two reasons for this. The first is that competitive swimming, which seems to consist of a few anonymous figures disguised by cap and goggles moving through the water, is not a natural spectator sport. Even some sports which are natural spectator sports do not always transfer well to the cinema screen; I cannot, for example, think of any really great film about tennis or even soccer, the world's most popular game. ("Bend It Like Beckham" was probably the best). Director Megan Simpson Huberman is never able to transform the races into enthralling spectacles in the way in which Hugh Hudson transformed athletics events in "Chariots of Fire".
The second reason is that the film has a very dated feel to it. Apart from some of the incidental music there is very little to indicate that it was made in 1992 rather than, say, 1962. Ms Huberman is clearly attempting not only to recreate the look of late fifties/early sixties New Zealand in full period detail but also to capture the look of films made around that date. One reviewer aptly compares this to viewing a sequence of Kodachrome slides, and this applies not only to the stability and solidity of the camera-work but also to balance of the colours. As in a number of films made around 1960 (and in many photos taken around then) certain colours, particularly the blues and yellows, are slightly too vivid and others, particularly the reds and greens, are slightly too muted. I think that this was quite deliberate and that Ms Huberman's intention was not so much to use colour in a symbolic way- although the emphasis on blue may be appropriate in a film in which water plays such an important part- but to create an illusion that the film is contemporary with the events it depicts. When Alex's life is disrupted by tragedy, this aspect of the film is dealt with in a restrained, stiff-upper-lip way which is more 1960 than 1992.
Now I personally have nothing against this sort of thing; indeed, I can appreciate Ms Huberman's desire to be different and to stand out from the run-of-the-mill crowd. In choosing to make her film in this way, however, she will have made an enemy of the "I hate old movies" brigade, which in 1992 probably meant those unable to appreciate any film made before 1980, and who would certainly not have appreciated a modern film made in homage to an older style of film-making.
There is, however, a lot to appreciate in this film. It explores one of the great dilemmas at the heart of modern sport, namely must one become an obsessive monomaniac, with no time for anything but one's sport itself, in order to succeed, or can one become a sporting champion while still remaining a rounded human being? In a way, this dilemma is also one of the themes of "Chariots of Fire", where Eric Liddell represents the old-fashioned gentleman amateur for whom certain values (in his case religious ones) are far more important than anything he might do in the sporting arena, while Harold Abrahams, a professional in terms of spirit if not in terms of financial reward, can be seen as foreshadowing the modern "win at all costs" attitude.
In this film it is Alex's main rival Margaret who epitomises the spirit of victory above everything, although one senses that this attitude is less Margaret's own than that of her pushy, snobbish and bitchy mother. (I found myself wishing, in fact, that the film had paid more attention to Margaret in order to bring out the contrasts between her and Alex). Alex herself, by contrast, epitomises the ideal of the well-rounded personality, almost a Renaissance Woman trying to reconcile her sporting endeavours with her many other interests, which besides her academic studies also include other sports, music, singing, acting, dancing (both ballroom and ballet) and her romance with her boyfriend Andy. She only gives these activities up under pressure from her coach, and even he realises that Alex's balletic skills can be put to good use in their training sessions.
"Alex" is not in the same class as "Chariots of Fire", one of those rare, happy films where script, direction, photography, acting and music all combine to produce something of the highest quality. It does, however, have many good qualities, including Ms Huberman's defiantly independent "look" and a sterling performance in the title role from the young Lauren Jackson as the many-faceted heroine. It deserves a higher rating on this board than its current 5.5. 7/10