YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA – Review by Diane Carson

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Young Woman and the Sea profiles the great Trudy Ederle.

Based on an inspirational true story, Norwegian director Joachim Rønning’s Young Woman and the Sea chronicles American swimmer Trudy Ederle who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the twenty-one mile English Channel from Cape Gris-Nez, France, to Kingsdown, Kent. Based on Glenn Stout’s book, the story begins in 1914 New York with the General Slocum steamship fire.

That disaster killed hundreds of passengers who stayed on board because they couldn’t swim. This prompts Trudy’s mother Gertrude to insist her daughters, Meg and Trudy, swim despite Trudy’s debilitating measles. The result is astonishing: world records, Olympic medals, and the English Channel swim.

Family dynamics dominate in a working class, tenement environment. Daughter of hard-working, tradition bound, German immigrant butcher Henry and strong-willed Gertrude, Trudy relied on her always supportive, older sister Meg, also a superb swimmer and solid partner in Trudy’s endeavor. As important, the resourceful Charlotte “Eppy” Epstein (a terrific Sian Clifford) nurtures Trudy’s talent, after first discounting it, and the eccentric Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham) coaches Trudy in her Channel adventure.

Several complications, not revealed here, keep suspense in play. However, the film consistently shows its Disney pedigree, meaning there’s no subtlety or moral ambiguity. To its credit, it does expose the appalling sexism of women’s place in sport competition as well as social dictates for 1920s women, including arranged marriages in the Ederle home. The working class tenement does have a palpable presence.

The cast shines. As father Henry, Kim Bodnia expresses emotions while, as a complement, Jeanette Hain as Gertrude telegraphs strength through her restraint. But Daisy Ridley as Trudy anchors the film communicating a vivacious personality and assertion of strength. She’s also clearly a strong swimmer. The main weakness is the intrusive, overbearing music that insists on emotions already clearly conveyed through the performances and script. Still, the film works, with the triumph of talent and true grit. I applaud this homage to the great Trudy Ederle, a young woman who deserves more recognition. Young Woman and the Sea is screening now.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.