Young Woman and the Sea review – Disney’s surface-level swimming biopic lacks depth

Estimated read time 5 min read

Born to German immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York, Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle crawl-stroked her way through the American dream. In spite of great adversity – a girlhood bout of measles that left her partially deaf, protestations from her butcher father, the ingrained sexism of a country freshly considering that women may deserve the right to vote – she pursued swimming supremacy with a single-minded determination, a drive that brought her all the way across the English Channel. As the first woman to make the treacherous 21-mile journey through choppy, jellyfish-infested waters, she proved that gender has nothing to do with athletic ability, and personified the current of progress rippling out from the suffragette movement into the rest of society.

The new biopic Young Woman and the Sea presents Eberle’s life as a broadly inspiring parable of female striving and triumph, its plot points readily mapped onto any struggle to break into a boys’ club. Delayed for five years at Paramount, recast, sold off to Disney, shunted to their streaming channel and reassigned to theaters after encouraging test screenings, the most surprising aspect of this neat-and-tidy success story is how long it took to get made.

In the Coney Island neighborhood of tax-friendly Bulgaria, a land of hearty Slavic extras outfitted with boater hats and hot dogs, young Trudy and sister Meg seethe with envy as they watch strapping sons frolic in the pool. In the wake of the General Slocum steamboat fire that claimed over a thousand lives in the East River, the Ederle girls’ mother (Jeanette Hain) decides that they shall be taught to swim, but the pair will still have to fight for every grain of regard they get in the hostile territory of sport. Following a time-jump, the grown Trudy (Daisy Ridley, a can-do optimism inherent in her dimples and earnest, toothy smile) is belittled by the head of pro swimming (Glenn Fleshler), distanced from her trainer (Sian Clifford), sabotaged by the jealous coach (Christopher Eccleston) assigned to her as a replacement, and insulted by a news media more interested in her cooking skills than her considerable accomplishments. Plus ça change, a viewer might sigh, thinking of the recent push for recognition in women’s basketball, or perhaps the ugly discrimination against trans athletes.

Nestled safely in the remote past, however, the story of a battle that has long since been won (you’d be hard-pressed to find a living person who believes women should not be allowed to go swimming) offers an anodyne, Disneyfied take on feminism. When her daddy (Kim Bodnia) won’t let her join a local swim team, little Trudy sings Ain’t We Got Fun ad nauseam in protest until he gives in, a refrain she revisits in adulthood whenever the odds have been stacked against her. It’s an adorably annoying form of protest, sanctioned by a film that prefers its villains clear-cut and its activism polite.

To label Trudy’s depiction as “girlboss of the briny deep” would not be much more reductive than the film’s own treatment of her. The screenplay takes little interest in the personal life of a distaff jock who spent her entire life unmarried, rejecting her parents’ arranged betrothal for her true love, the sea. Some of the Hollywood tweaks to her biography have been made for dramatic cohesion’s sake; her “embarrassment” at the 1924 Olympics actually netted her a gold medal and two bronzes, she completed a 22-mile test swim at home before taking to the Channel, and her abortive first attempt to swim it was a full year before the second, not mere days. But condensing the timeline also gives us the moment where a wily Trudy slips her handlers and dives out the window of a ship, throwing old-fashioned propriety to the wind as she goes after what she wants. The moments that ring phoniest all serve to reinforce her image as a simply agreeable role model, the most egregiously ham-handed among them when a chirpy child cuts through a pang of self-doubt at just the right time to inform Trudy that she’s a hero to girls everywhere.

Once Trudy kicks off from the French shores, the director Joachim Rønning is relieved of the well-intended message-peddling and freed up to focus on the action sequences more comfortably in his area of expertise. The home stretch sequence hits the emotional notes it needs to, the immersive 360-degree open-water cinematography and well-measured rhythms of editing both coaxing suspense from a preordained conclusion. It’s impossible not to root for Trudy, though more for what she represents than her own winning pluck. She stands as a mascot for all that is good and right, a gleaming image of excellence. And yet we’re left to wonder who this woman was in any intimate or meaningful sense, what kind of person could cultivate the intense, unyielding obsession and discipline required to attain the unattainable. Fans don’t worship athletes for breaking records, but for breaking through their own limitations. The unflappable Trudy breezes through every obstacle facing her without breaking her stride, overcoming her life-threatening illness in a matter of minutes as if by magic. Albeit internally rather than physically, she makes it all look easy, a disservice to Eberle herself.

  • Young Woman and the Sea is out in US and UK cinemas on 31 May


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