Young Woman And The Sea review | Daisy Ridley excels in family-friendly biopic

Young Woman And The Sea review
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The true story of swimmer Gertrude Ederle forms the basis of a new biopic, featuring a terrific performance from Daisy Ridley. Our review of Young Woman And The Sea:

What would drive a 20-something year-old woman – or anyone for that matter – to swim 21 miles across a freezing cold, hazard-filled English Channel? Director Joaquim Rønning provides a convincing motivation in the true story of Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Ederle, a German-American swimmer who took on the potentially lethal challenge in 1926.

Originally planned as a direct-to-streaming movie, Young Woman And The Sea was such a hit with test audiences that Disney has opted to give it a proper cinema release. It’s easy to see why: Rønning’s film can be a little sentimental and soft-focus at times, but its feminist angle, about a young woman fighting for recognition as an athlete in an era that actively sought to keep women out of sport altogether, is compelling throughout. Then there’s Daisy Ridley’s hugely watchable turn as Trudy – a true sporting underdog if ever there was one.

Born into a working class family (her father’s a butcher), Trudy’s near-fatal case of the measles almost killed her as a child, and the likelihood of eventually going deaf stalks her as an adult. Meanwhile, Trudy’s father Henry (Kim Bodnia) strongly disapproves of her desire to become a swimmer; it’s only after Trudy’s constant badgering – and driving everyone mad with a rendition of the foxtrot earworm Ain’t We Got Fun, played on an out-of-tune guitar – that he finally relents.

Thankfully, Trudy’s likeably forthright mother, Getrude (Jeanette Hain) sees the athletic potential in both Trudy and her older sister, Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and enrols them in a women’s swimming class – an outfit so poorly regarded that its training pool is located in a basement next to a boiler.

On her journey to becoming a professional athlete, Trudy constantly faces an unending wave of doubters and opposing forces, whether it’s Olympic official James Sullivan (Glenn Fleshler), who only begrudgingly allows women to compete in the games, or embittered coach Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston) who doesn’t exactly have Trudy’s best interests at heart.

All of which helps to explain why Trudy would take on the challenge of swimming the Channel – a potentially deadly crossing that, in the 1920s, only four people (all men) had successfully completed: in a climate where everything seems engineered to keep women in their place, Trudy realises that it’ll take a monumental achievement to shift a patriarchal society’s attitudes.

As Trudy, Ridley’s mixture of awkwardness, modesty and determination is perfectly judged. When she says she doesn’t want to submit to an arranged marriage with an insipid nut seller who barely speaks a word of English, we absolutely get where she’s coming from. When she says she’d rather drown than be pulled out of the Channel before she’s reached her goal, we believe her.

Ridley’s joined by an able supporting cast, most notably Jeanette Hain – she’s capable of expressing a long history and deeply buried sadness with a single glance. When Trudy wins her first race of note, Hain’s expression of pride and wonderment, gazing down at her daughter from the crowd, anchors a moment of victory in something subtly human.

On the other side of the spectrum is Stephen Graham’s barrel-chested swimming veteran Bill Burgess, who comes clambering nude onto a Coney Island beach like a harebrained character from another movie; yet Graham is too brilliant an actor to simply play a straight mentor role – beneath the wild eyes and unfashionable nudity, a greater subtlety lurks.

Not that screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (who previously wrote Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales for producer Jerry Bruckheimer) is all that interested in subtlety. Young Woman And The Sea, adapted from Glenn Stout’s non-fiction book of the same name, has a tendency to signpost its heroes and villains, and yell its themes from top-storey windows rather than hint at them, though it has to be said there’s also a welcome dash of humour here that cuts through all the earnestness – Eccleston, in particular, has a standout line about the unwanted attention of Frenchmen.

Rønning – who previously took to the high seas with Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – also directs with a pace as rhythmic and urgent as Trudy’s swimming. It’s less harsh in tone than last year’s Nyad – another true-life film about a professional swimmer – but no less impressive from a technical standpoint. Period Manhattan is captured in pleasing (if somewhat cosy) detail, and when it comes to the big challenge presented in the film’s final stages, Rønning makes the Channel feel like a visceral force to be reckoned with.

A different set of filmmakers might have approached the story in more uncompromising, raw terms. But even moulded into the familiar beats of a true-life sports movie about chasing dreams, Young Woman And The Sea is well-made enough to melt the hearts of all but the most cynical of viewers.

Young Woman And The Sea is out in UK cinemas on the 31st May.

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