‘Young Woman and the Sea’ Review: This Sports Biopic Makes the Formula Work

The story of Trudy Ederle becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel is a throwback to formative Disney sports movies like 'Cool Runnings' and 'The Rookie.'

Daisy Ridley in Young Woman and the Sea Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

You’ll be forgiven for a lack of excitement around Young Woman and the Sea, a biopic of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel. The unwieldy, uninspiring title comes from the film’s source material, Glenn Stout’s book Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, but the movie itself is far better than the marketing build-up would lead you to believe. 

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YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Joachim Rønning
Written by: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Stephen Graham, Kim Bodnia, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn Fleshler
Running time: 129 mins.

Directed by Joachim Rønning, who helmed Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Young Woman and the Sea is a family-friendly, feel-good sports flick with a nostalgic vintage feel. Daisy Ridley plays the charming, determined Trudy, whose deep connection with her older sister Margaret (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) becomes the story’s central relationship. After surviving the measles as a child, Trudy grows up in early 20th century New York City with an unrelenting drive to swim. Her mother Gertrude (Jeanette Hain) not only ensures that both daughters can swim, she enlists them in an all-girls swim team led by Charlotte Epstein (Sian Clifford) against the wishes of her husband Henry (Kim Bodnia). At first, Trudy is slow and awkward in the water, but eventually she breaks records and scores an invitation to the 1924 Paris Olympics. 

The early scenes about Trudy’s childhood and upbringing in New York City, as the daughter of an immigrant butcher, are compellingly told. It’s time when girls aren’t allowed to participate in sports, so everything Trudy does feels like an act of rebellion. She’s standing up against a culture, which includes her own father, that doesn’t believe women can compete and that they must be protected. It’s shocking to watch Trudy and her teammates falter during the Olympics because they weren’t allowed to train on the boat ride overseas (the men, of course, were). Trudy’s ultimate act of defiance comes when she decides to swim the English Channel—something a woman had never done at the time—in order to avoid being married off. It’s this journey that comprises the latter half of the film. 

Jeanette Hain, Daisy Ridley and Kim Bodnia (from left) in Young Woman and the Sea Vladisav Lepoev/Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

In France, Trudy is forced by her sponsor to enlist coach Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston), an uptight man who has himself failed to swim the Channel. Jabez clearly doesn’t want a woman to succeed and he sabotages Trudy six miles into her crossing, forcing her to start again, this time with the aid of Bill Burgess (an always-likeable Stephen Graham). Some of the swimming scenes will remind viewers of Nyad, a similar movie about a woman’s determination to push her physical limitations. But the water scenes are actually Young Woman and the Sea’s least interesting, despite Ridley’s capable recreation of the record-breaking swim. It’s the moments between Trudy and Margaret that enliven the story, a narrative flourish that will appeal to younger female viewers. 

Although the outcome is part of historical record, there’s still a swell of emotion when Trudy surpasses expectations and becomes the so-called greatest athlete in the world. Rønning unfurls the journey with tension and then triumph, even if some of the storytelling leans towards the formulaic. But despite a few lags in momentum there’s an inspirational quality to the movie that feels like a throwback to formative Disney sports movies like Cool Runnings or The Rookie, or ‘90s classics like Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. It’s clear Young Woman and the Sea isn’t trying to be ground-breaking or flashy, which is the correct approach. Instead, it incorporates a tried-and-true methodology that generally works. It’s the sort of movie I remember watching on VHS tape with my family on a Friday night—solidly entertaining, heart warming and without pretense. If only they could have given it a better title. 


‘Young Woman and the Sea’ Review: This Sports Biopic Makes the Formula Work