Review: ‘Young Woman and the Sea,’ starring Daisy Ridley, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Stephen Graham, Kim Bodnia, Christopher Eccleston and Glenn Fleshler

May 31, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daisy Ridley in “Young Woman and the Sea” (Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Young Woman and the Sea”

Directed by Joachim Rønning

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and Europe from 1914 to 1926, the dramatic film “Young Woman and the Sea” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Champion swimmer Trudy Ederle, who becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel, defies expectations and sexism in her quest for greatness. 

Culture Audience: “Young Woman and the Sea” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “against all odds” stories about underestimated athletes or women in patriarchal societies.

Ethan Rouse, Kim Bodnia, Jeanette Hain, Daisy Ridley and Tilda Cobham-Hervey in “Young Woman and the Sea” (Photo by Elena Nenkova/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Young Woman and the Sea” is a traditionally made sports drama that might seem old-fashioned to some viewers. However, this biopic about champion swimmer Trudy Ederle has solid acting and themes that don’t get outdated, such as triumphing over obstacles. People who like stories about iconic achievers who are determined but modest about their accomplishments will find plenty to like about how Ederle is portrayed in this inspirational film.

Directed by Joachim Rønning, “Young Woman and the Sea” is based on Glenn Stout’s 2009 non-fiction book “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel.” The movie’s adapted screenplay was written by Jeff Nathanson. Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle (who was born in 1905 and died in 2003) is considered one of the best competitive female swimmers of all time, not just because of the records she broke but also because of the barriers she broke for other female swimmers. There’s nothing complicated about this movie, which is told in mostly chronological order. For the purposes of this review, the real Trudy Ederle will be called Ederle, while the Trudy Ederle character in the movie will be called Trudy.

“Young Woman and the Sea” begins in the mid-1920s, by showing Trudy in her early 20s (played by Daisy Ridley) about to dive into a large body of water to train for her historic swim across the English Channel. She is covered in an unnamed lubricant (it looks like Vaseline), which is what long-distance swimmers use to help deal with cold-water temperatures. Trudy is singing what the movie later reveals to be her favorite song: the 1920 foxtrot tune “Ain’t We Got Fun,” written by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn.

The movie then shows an extensive flashback to Trudy’s childhood in 1914, when she was 9 years old. Trudy (played Olive Abercrombie) has made a near-miraculous recovery from measles that left her bedridden and her family worried that she might die. However, the measles would lead to Trudy having hearing loss that got worse when she was in her 30s and eventually became legally deaf.

Trudy lives in New York City with her German immigrant parents; her older sister Margaret “Meg” Ederle; and her younger brother Henry Ederle Jr. (“Young Woman and the Sea” was actually filmed in Bulgaria.) Meg is about two or three years older than Trudy. Henry is about five or six years younger than Trudy. Tilda Cobham-Hervey has the role of young-adult Meg. Lilly Aspell has the role of adolescent Meg. Raphael J. Bishop has the role of pre-teen Henry. Ethan Rouse has the role of teenage Henry.

Henry Ederle Sr. (played by Kim Bodnia) is a butcher who believes in a strict, patriarchal way of living, where men are supposed to be thought of and treated as superior to women. Gertrude Ederle (played by Jeanette Hain) is strong-willed and thinks that women and girls should not have restrictions placed on them because of gender. In other words, Gertrude is a feminist before the word “feminist” was invented.

Getrude’s belief in gender equality plays a crucial role in giving Trudy the motivation and opportunities to become a champion swimmer. Early on in the movie, when Ederle kids are all underage, Meg and Trudy can see from their home that ship has gone up in flames at a nearby port. Gertrude tells them the tragic news that many people (mostly women) on the ship drowned because they didn’t know how to swim, and they stayed on the burning boat rather than risk trying to swim to shore nearby.

Henry Sr. says that Henry Jr. will definitely learn how to swim, but Meg doesn’t need to learn. Gertrude strongly disagrees and says that Meg and Trudy have a right to learn how to swim, just like anyone else does. Gertrude believes that knowing how to swim is a life-saving skill that shouldn’t be deprived or bestowed upon people based on gender. Henry Sr. also believes that it isn’t ladylike for girls or women to be in swimming competitions.

In the meantime, Trudy is determined to learn how to swim, even though her father disapproves. Trudy’s doctor has also warned that Trudy shouldn’t get too much water in her ears, or it could cause more hearing loss for Trudy. After much persistence from Trudy, her father agrees to teach Trudy how to swim at Coney Island’s beach. Due to her recent illness, Trudy cannot use a public swimming pool.

Trudy is a natural talent and soon becomes obsessed with swimming. When Trudy and Meg are teenagers, Henry Sr. is still adamant that they can’t become competitive swimmers. So what does Getrude do? She enrolls Trudy and Meg in an all-female swimming team, led by a tough-but-caring coach named Charlotte “Eppy” Epstein (played by Sian Clifford), who gives the two sisters the training to become more disciplined swimmers.

It isn’t long before Trudy outshines Meg as a swimmer in competitons. Meg seems to have some envy about Trudy’s superior swimming skills, but Meg’s envy doesn’t fester into full-blown jealousy, mainly because Meg is not as passionate about swimming as Trudy is. Trudy puts swimming above everything else in her life. In the movie, Trudy is never shown having any friends or dating anyone. Meg is Trudy’s closest confidante.

Meg starts to rebel a little against her father. One night, Meg comes home late and smelling like liquor. Meg admits to her disapproving father that she’s been on a date with a guy named Chip Anderson (played by Hyoie O’Grady), who has been courting Meg and will soon ask Meg to marry him. Henry Sr. flies into a rage because he thinks his daughters should marry men of German heritage. (The movie takes a short detour into Meg’s love life, which doesn’t go according to what Meg really wants.)

Meanwhile, a montage shows that Trudy wins several swimming competitions on a local, state, and then national level, often breaking swimming records along the way. It’s inevitable that Trudy trains for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. And then, in 1926, Trudy decides to take on her biggest challenge of all: swimming across the English Channel, which is a feat that had never been accomplished by a woman at the time.

“Young Woman and the Sea” has the expected scenes of men trying to block or discourage Trudy’s ambitions, simply because of her female gender. Trudy’s father is one of the chief culprits of this sexism. And for a long time, he refuses to celebrate Trudy’s accomplishments. Trudy’s mother Gertrude is always supportive of her, but Trudy wants her father’s approval too.

For her Olympic training, Trudy gets a wealthy sponsor named James Sullivan (played by Glenn Fleshler), a pompous blowhard who wants Trudy to be among the six American female swimmers whom he’s sponsoring for the Olympics. James insists that Trudy and the other women swimmers have a male coach. Jabez Wolffe (played by Christopher Eccleston), a Scottish has-been professional swimmer, becomes Trudy’s coach. It becomes obvious early on that Jabez is very jealous that Trudy is more talented than he could ever be.

Not all of the men in Trudy’s life are sexist and condescending. Trudy meets a rebellious sailor named Bill Burgess (played by Stephen Graham), who’s got a similar spirit of non-conformity as Trudy has. The first time that Trudy sees Bill, he’s at the Coney Island beach being arrested for swimming naked. Bill ends up becoming Trudy’s sailor navigator during her English Channel swimming marathon. Trudy also develops a friendly acquaintance with another swimmer named Benji Zammit (played by Alexander Karim), who also wants to swim across the English Channel.

Even if viewers have never heard of Trudy Ederle before seeing this movie, “Young Woman Sea” has no real surprises because it checks all the usual plot boxes and follows the same formula as many other sports movies. A noticeable flaw of the movie is that it doesn’t accurately depict the type of hearing loss that the real Ederle had during this time in her life. There’s a brief mention of her hearing loss but then Trudy’s hearing loss is never really mentioned or shown again.

The acting performances fit the tone of the movie very well. Ridley is quite good but not outstanding in “Young Woman and the Sea,” which unrealistically makes Trudy look like she has no personality flaws. The swimming scenes are thrilling though, with Oscar Faura’s cinematography making viewers feel immersed in the water along with Trudy, even in some of the scenes that are obviously not in a real ocean. Unlike the treacherous waters that Trudy swims in, “Young Woman and the Sea” offers nothing edgy or unpredictable. The movie is a perfectly fine option for anyone who wants to see a story that can appeal to many generations of people.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Young Woman and the Sea” in select U.S. cinemas on May 31, 2024.

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