Review: Young Woman and the Sea Chronicles a Historic Moment for Women, Athletes and the Swimmer Who Accomplished It All

Although not quite justifying its two-hour-plus running time, the true-life story Young Woman and the Sea eventually turns into a rousing, uplifting story of one of the greatest and most important accomplishments in the world of female athletics, one whose ripples are still felt today. Directed by the talented Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Rønning (the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), the movie throws a spotlight on Trudy Ederle, the child of German immigrants who overcame adversity and flat-out disrespect in order to swim the 21-mile-long English Channel from France to England (and in record time, no less).

The film begins in the earliest part of the 1900s where the Ederle family lives in New York, with father Henry (Kim Bodnia) making a decent living as a butcher alongside his wife Gertrud (Jeanette Hain) and their three children. Having barely survived the measles, young Trudy wants to learn to swim after a ferry catches fire in the harbor, killing hundreds of people, mostly women who did not jump into the water because they didn’t know how to swim. Under the coaching of Charlotte (Sian Clifford), Trudy (played as a young adult by Daisy Ridley) and older sister Margaret (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) not only learns to swim, but as they get older they become real competitors, with Trudy even making the women’s Olympic team. But because the team’s new trainer, a swimmer of some note named Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston), is more concerned with keeping the girls away from the boys on the ship taking them to the Paris games, the girls never get to train either on the boat or in Paris, and they lose badly.

Written by Jeff Nathanson (based on the Glenn Stout book Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World), the film then follows Trudy as she attempts the Channel crossing with the proper training, if not the proper trainer (Wolffe again, who has tried unsuccessfully to swim the Channel as well, and doesn’t want to be shown up by a woman). He even goes so far as to sabotage her initial swim. But when another swimming legend and sailor (Stephen Graham as Bill Burgess) figures out that something is amiss, he agrees to secretly train and supervise her next swim, done without the world watching (at least at first).

A great deal of the final 45 minutes of Young Woman and the Sea will remind many of another recent long-distance swimming story, Nyad, which gives more of the unsavory details of Diana Nyad’s many attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. But Trudy’s disadvantages were also certainly legion, from cold water and a horde of jellyfish to losing her way in the dark and being forced to separate from Burgess and his team, which eventually includes Trudy’s father and sister. But that only makes her achievement all the more worthy of celebration. A few moments in this section of the film feel a bit hokey and not quite as believable as others, but the details of the swim feel incredibly authentic and even somewhat terrifying. 

The event made Trudy the single most celebrated athlete of her time (male or female), and I was admittedly curious about her life immediately after this accomplishment, which is neatly summarized in few closing title cards. Dealing with this level of fame and admiration after so many years of being degraded by male sports writers and various competitive sporting associations might have made for an interesting chapter in her life to explore, but that would have made this already long film feel downright clunky. Still, what’s here is accessible, well told, historically important, and will likely fill in a necessary knowledge gap for many sports fans. Ridley is serviceable as Trudy, but she leaves a lot of her character’s pain too well hidden

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.