Boats and bombs

A Netflix winner, a Netflix disappointment and a classic American hero on Amazon Prime

On Television

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Back in the autumn of 2015 I was a frequent visitor to Keleti station in Budapest. I was living in the Hungarian capital and working as a foreign correspondent. The grand, ochre Austro-Hungarian building was my gateway to many reporting adventures, its trains rolling south to the Balkans or east to Ukraine. But this time the station itself was the story. Budapest was the epicentre of the international migration crisis. Keleti and its surrounds had become a surreal, inner-city refugee camp.

Each morning crowds of commuters picked a path through police and hundreds of camped-out migrants. I remember watching a middle-aged man and his young daughter sleeping on cardboard, his arm resting protectively on her shoulders.

The sisters party on a Damascus rooftop while explosions thunder in the distance; a shell crashes through a roof into a swimming pool

I was moved by the stories I heard, of families fleeing war and destruction. Who could not be? Yet it was a curious interlude with many unanswered questions: how had Europe’s borders collapsed so quickly? Why were so many all coming at once — by no means all from Syria? Who told the Keleti refugees to sit in orderly rows when journalists arrived, place a photogenic child in the centre and give him a piece of cardboard inscribed with two hearts and the words “Syria” and “Germany”?

One morning a thin man in a green suit sidled up to me, muttering “Everything they are telling you is a lie”. Were they lying? Was he lying? It was impossible to say.

The Swimmers at least is a true story. Now showing on Netflix, it recounts the lives of two Syrian sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini. Both are competitive swimmers, living in Damascus, trained by their father and hoping to compete in the Olympics. The war destroys their dreams, along with so much else. They flee to Turkey, where they board a rickety dinghy, barely seaworthy, to try to cross the Mediterranean to Greece and then Germany. Far out in the ocean the engine fails and the boat begins to take on water, a long way from the shore. The passengers start
to pray and panic and seem doomed — until Yusra and Sara dive in and swim for three-and-a half hours, pulling the boat to shore.

Yusra and Sara are played by two real life Lebanese sisters, Nathalie and Manal Issa. Sally El Hosaini, the director, handles the story with skill and verve, showing the complexity as well as the intensity of the siblings’ relationship.

The Swimmers was filmed on locations including the Turkish coastline, Lesbos, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and even Damascus, which brings a real sense of verisimilitude. The cinematography is captivating — the sisters party on a Damascus rooftop while explosions thunder in the distance; a shell crashes through a roof into a swimming pool; overhead shots show the vastness of the Mediterranean as the dinghy sputters onwards. The boat scenes are enthralling and terrifying, the soundtrack is superb.

The five-episode spy series is entertaining enough but its central character suffers from an identity crisis

From Greece the sisters trek overland, through until they arrive in Berlin. Yusra joins a swimming club and eventually competes in the first-ever refugee team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, while Sara returns to Greece to work with refugees — for which she is now under investigation. My only gripe is that at 135 minutes, The Swimmers is a bit too long. But this poignant, enthralling film reminded me that whatever mysteries remain about that summer at Keleti station, everyone there had a story to tell.

Treason, also on Netflix, does not quite hit the mark. The five-episode spy series is entertaining enough but its central character suffers from an identity crisis. Charlie Cox plays Adam Lawrence, the deputy chief of MI6. But he can’t decide if he is a ruthless strategist, prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the realm, or is a smiley bearded millennial, as his youthful appearance suggests.

Olga Kurylenko in Treason

Ciaran Hinds, as his boss Sir Martin Angelis, exudes a suitable air of menace and indeed turns out to be a nasty piece of work. But Angelis is poisoned and Lawrence takes over. Meanwhile Kara Yusova, an officer in the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, smartly played by former Bond actress Olga Kurylenko, roams around London.

Yusova is the most original character: complex and ambiguous but with a strong moral core. She and Lawrence were once lovers in Baku, which brings a nice personal twist, but could the deputy chief of MI6 really keep sneaking off to meet an SVR agent, mobile in hand, without his minders knowing where he was?

Jack Ryan, the lead role played by John Krasinski, never wavers. This is Krasinki’s third season of Ryan’s adventures, based on the best-selling Tom Clancy books, showing on Amazon Prime.

Ryan is an old-fashioned hero: a tough but brainy action man deployed by the United States government into situations of extreme danger. His mission is to locate a nuclear weapon which Russian baddies plan to detonate and blame the Americans.

It’s all classic stuff and very enjoyable — frenetic fight scenes, explosions, car chases, double-crosses and back-stabbing in Washington, neatly overlaid with plenty of geopolitical intrigue. Prague plays itself and Budapest does a fair job of standing in for Moscow — although the Chain Bridge and Margaret Island are instantly recognisable. Sadly, though, there’s no sign of Keleti station.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover