‘Maiden’ Film Review: Extraordinary Women Buck the Odds, Sail Around the World in New Documentary

Director Alex Holmes vividly captures an all-female crew defying the elements — and sailing-world sexism — to achieve victory

Sony Pictures Classics

Tracy Edwards does not easily take “no” for an answer. That’s quickly apparent in “Maiden,” Alex Holmes’ riveting retelling of Edwards’ historic achievement, leading the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race, one of earth’s biggest open sea sailing competitions.

For several months from 1989-1990, she steered her ragtag crew through formidable currents and temperatures both scorching and freezing. She made impossibly difficult decisions and fought her own battles against doubt. Through it all, she kept her crew together and proved their naysayers wrong in spectacular fashion.

Edwards survived a rough and rebellious childhood and entered her wayward young adulthood with no direction in life until she found sailing. Everything about it fascinated her, and it introduced her to exciting characters (like the roaming skippers who traveled wherever they pleased) and a few famous faces like King Hussien of Jordan. It was a world more exciting than anything she had experienced growing up in the U.K. She soon fell in love with competitive sailing, but no matter how badly she wanted to embark on that lifestyle, many crews were reluctant to take on a woman at all. The best Edwards could manage was talking her way into a cook’s position in the 1985-1986 Whitbread Round the World Race.

Realizing men were never going to give her the opportunity she craved, Edwards set out to organize her own all-woman crew to commandeer a fixer-upper boat rechristened the Maiden to show the world that not only could women sail around the world, but they might also win the race as well.

In 1989, sailing was considered exclusively a man’s sport. Many in the field didn’t think women could handle the danger of sailing alone across treacherous waters. They thought sailing around the world would be too physically demanding for women. Past and present interviews show the sexist attitudes the Maiden crew was up against. Even journalists covering the sport at the time mocked the all-woman crew; according to one of the reporters, they took bets on when the Maiden team would drop out of the race. No one outside of the Maiden thought the crew would even make it to the first leg of the journey.

Holmes does an incredible job writing and directing this already action-packed narrative into an impressive documentary. He carefully weaves the crew’s interviews tightly together so that it seems like they’re almost talking among themselves, instead of in separate one-on-one interviews. Diving into an incredible treasure trove of archival footage from news broadcasts and the Maiden’s onboard video diaries, Holmes gives present-day viewers a glimpse into the press’ less-than-stellar coverage of the story and insight into just how treacherous was the journey. Interviews with the Maiden’s crew and its doubters fill in the anecdotes with personally reflective commentary.

Dramatic footage of building-tall waves or ominous icebergs plays against lighter images of bouncing dolphins and the crew celebrating birthdays. Using an old news broadcast, “Maiden” retraces the formidable Whitbread course, which often earned gasps from my audience. Sail around Antartica off the coast of South America in some of the roughest waters in the world? No thanks, I’m good.

The documentary is rather honest in portraying that it wasn’t always smooth sailing aboard the ship either. Tempers flared, especially Edwards’, and one crew member was fired before the race began. The press circled the crew like sharks, looking for any hint of catfights between the all-women crew. Not only did the women fend off negative stories, they also truly had each other’s back. This becomes one of the documentary’s greatest strengths, showing how these women from different backgrounds joined together in sisterly solidarity for the sake of survival and equality.

Those emotional highs and lows are perfectly accompanied by an eclectic score by Rob Manning and Samuel Sim that’s both modern and classical. The movie’s synth-heavy score builds up the drama of the story’s energetic and daring notes. You can often catch it playing during the ’80s newsreels and the old-school camcorder footage. There’s also an edgier violin-led instrumental that hits more of the story’s poignant moments. The number has a sense of urgency in its rhythm. When its lonely violin takes on higher pitches, it mirrors the Maiden’s voyage, forging ahead against detractors and the elements.

After following this ship’s journey, it’s hard not to be moved. The negativity and sexism the crew faced is so purposefully explained earlier in the film that the audience gets a full sense of the emotional response the Maiden earned around the world. It puts us back in a moment not that long ago where it was even more toxic for women to say or do anything that didn’t follow expectations. At a time when the U.S. women’s soccer team is still fighting for equal pay to their male counterparts, the Maiden’s story feels no less relevant. Revisiting the events of “Maiden” allows audiences to appreciate how far we’ve come and how far we still have yet to go when it comes to empowering women to take on the world.