‘Young Woman and the Sea’ Review: Daisy Ridley Breaks Swimming Barriers in Biopic That Channels Greatness

This is an old-fashioned, first-rate Disney crowdpleaser from director Joachim Rønning

Young Woman and the Sea
Disney

Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, especially The Walt Disney Company, and Joachim Rønning’s “Young Woman and the Sea” is a textbook example. That’s not just because the movie tells the story of Gertrude Ederle, who overcame widespread sexism and childhood measles to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. Oh no, it’s also because the movie itself has escaped near-certain death and miraculously emerged triumphant.

“Young Woman and the Sea” was not originally intended for theaters. Instead, it was to be consigned to the depths of Disney+, where original movies go to get overlooked and forgotten. (Remember the live-action “Lady and the Tramp” remake? You’d be the only one.) And yet here the movie is, arriving in select theaters at the start of the summer season. And as near as I can tell, the reason “Young Woman and the Sea” was rescued is because it is — if you’ll excuse my technical jargon — really, really, really quite good.

Indeed, this is an old-fashioned Disney crowdpleaser par excellence, the sort of feel good family film the House of Mouse used to know how to make before the middling box office for Mira Nair’s exquisite “Queen of Katwe” made them panic and delete all their files on how to inspire young audiences. Someone must have made a backup because Rønning’s film goes back to the formula and gets it just right.

Daisy Ridley stars as Trudy Ederle, the daughter of German immigrants, who survives childhood illness but struggles with the overt sexism of the era. She wants to play stickball, she wants to box, but the only sport she’s allowed to learn — over the objections of her father Henry (Kim Bosnia, “The Witcher”) — is swimming. And even then it’s only because her mother, also named Gertrude (Jeannette Hain, “Never Look Away”), makes the excellent case that people shouldn’t drown to death, women included.

Trudy is initially outshined by her sister Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “Lone Wolf”) on the all-girls swim team, a novelty that is only allowed to exist because their coach Charlotte (Sian Clifford, “See How They Run”) also runs the boiler in the building’s basement. Eventually Trudy grows into a champion swimmer, breaking world records and getting invited to the 1924 Olympic Games, where her coach, Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston), sabotages the women’s team by focusing on the appearance of feminine propriety instead of training. Any training. Whatsoever.

Trudy’s disastrous performance at the Olympics briefly breaks her spirit, but before long she decides to prove her mettle — and prove that women belong in professional sports — by swimming the English Channel, a feat achieved by only a few men in history. Because it is exceptionally difficult, in case you hadn’t heard.

The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) works a lot like the giant globs of lanolin and porpoise fat they use to grease up Trudy when she dives into the ocean. It’s slick as heck and it never chafes. Every storyline and every plot point is efficient and purposeful, conveying a clear, striking tale in which disadvantaged people succeed through limitless talent and gumption.

It’s the kind of pinpoint accuracy, highly structured screenwriting that sometimes rings false if the filmmakers sit on their laurels and bring nothing else to it. But Joachim Rønning’s film never rests. Every scene is photographed with great zeal by cinematographer Óscar Faura (“A Monster Calls”) and scored with glorious sweep by Amelia Warner (“Mr. Malcolm’s List”). The cast, to a one, understands the purpose they serve in the screenplay and hit their plot points hard. But they all bring personality to their characters, making even the archest of villains — and Jabez Wolffe qualifies — feel at home in this world.

Nathanson’s script follows the Disney underdog sports formula so much that it quickly goes the “Cool Runnings” route and completely ignores actual history if it gets in the way of a satisfying narrative. “Young Woman and the Sea” moves historical events a decade in either direction when it’s convenient, and omits rather significant parts of Ederle’s life, like the fact that she actually won a Gold Medal at 1924 Olympics. But it’s easier to sell the audience on the idea that Trudy has something to prove when she hasn’t already been crowned one of the greatest athletes in the world and given a shiny medal to prove it. (Oh yeah, and the climax is also eerily similar to the 2016 Disney drama “Finest Hours.” You thought nobody would notice, didn’t you Disney?)

You should never get your history from movies, but the best movies about the past make us want to learn more (“consult your local library” and all that). “Young Woman and the Sea” does a remarkable job of telling a remarkable story. We’re in Ederle’s corner. We care about her family. We despise the men who condescend to her and we’re grateful when their uppance comes. We’re pulled into this memorable tale like a vessel in the tide, and we wind up exactly where we want to go.

“Young Woman and the Sea” opens exclusively in theaters on May 31.

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