YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA – Review by Valerie Kafrin

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Anyone who says, “They don’t make movies like that anymore” should see Young Woman and the Sea. This rousing old-fashioned sports biopic has rich characters and relationships that make the triumph of the first woman to swim across the English Channel truly soar.

Trudy Ederle crossed the channel in 1926, an achievement all the more remarkable for the era’s limited technology and overwhelming sexism. As Trudy, Daisy Ridley (Magpie) radiates plucky intelligence, impish humor, and an athlete’s determination, aided by an all-around charming cast.

In 1914, young Trudy (Olive Abercrombie, Outer Range) already notched one victory—beating the measles, despite a grim prognosis. Disturbed by the ferry fire near their home in Coney Island when many women died because they couldn’t swim, her force-of-nature mother, Gertrud (Jeanette Hain, Testo), declares that Trudy, her sister, and her brother will all take lessons.

Her father, Henry (Kim Bodnia, Killing Eve), a butcher, at first laughs at this, but he’s no match for his wife—or the willful Trudy, who sings, “Ain’t We Got Fun” until he relents. When the local pool won’t allow Trudy in the water because of her previous illness, Henry ties a rope around her waist and holds one end until she gets the hang of it in the Atlantic Ocean.

The script by Jeff Nathanson (2019’s The Lion King), based on Glenn Stout’s biography of Trudy Ederle, breezily combines the period details and attitudes without sacrificing the emotional impact. Take how Trudy and her sister, Margaret (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart), eventually find a local women’s swim team, leading to Trudy qualifying for the Olympics. The men in charge harrumph over decent attire and behavior, restricting the women’s practice time, so they fail.

Later, when Trudy first attempts to swim across the English Channel, carrier pigeons note when she leaves the shore in France. Authorities insist swimmer Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston, True Detective) coach her instead of the woman coach she’s known for years, Lottie Epstein (Sian Clifford, His Dark Materials). Wolffe had tried and failed to cross the channel himself, so there’s no way he wants a woman to do what he hasn’t.

Director Joachim Rønning (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and cinematographer Oscar Faura, along with the period production design, show how Trudy’s athleticism and spirit wins people over, from fellow swimmers such as Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham, Bodies, combining kinship and comic relief) to her father and the general public.

There’s a lovely moment where Henry sees several little girls recognize a dejected Trudy outside his butcher shop. One has just beaten her brother, racing in the pool, which the brother called impossible. “How did it feel to do the impossible?” Trudy asks, a smile warming her face.
Another occurs when Gertrud, washing dishes in her apartment, sees neighbors through their windows listening to the radio news about Trudy in the English Channel, then marches down to the local station with her son to get as close to firsthand reports as she can.

Watching 2023’s Nyad, about the sixtysomething woman who swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013, really brings home how extraordinary Trudy’s feat was at the time. That aside, you know a film is working its magic when you know the real-life outcome, and you’re riveted, anyway. Young Woman and the Sea is that kind of film, showing Trudy sallying forth through jellyfish stings and sabotage, candle wax sealing her leaky swim goggles, closeup and alone in the dark shallows, where a guide boat can’t follow. Of course, she makes it—people at my screening applauded at the end—but it’s enthralling to see how she does.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.