Young Woman and the Sea (2024, dir. Joachim Rønning)

by | May 30, 2024

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 129 mins

UK Distributor: Disney

UK Release Date: 31 May 2024

WHO’S IN YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA?

Daisy Ridley, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Stephen Graham, Kim Bodnia, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn Fleshler, Jeanette Hain, Sian Clifford, Olive Abercrombie, Lilly Aspell

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Joachim Rønning (director), Jeff Nathanson (writer, producer), Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman (producers), Amelia Warner (composer), Oscar Faura (cinematographer), Úna Ní Dhonghaíle (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1926, Gertrude Ederle (Ridley) attempts to swim the English Channel…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA?

Disney’s formula for feel-good sports biopics, which over the years has brought about audience favourites like Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, Miracle and many others, is certainly alive and well with director Joachim Rønning’s swimming epic Young Woman and the Sea. Like those other films, this one presents a general overlook on the life of its main subject – in this case, it’s pioneer female swimmer Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle – with a number of social barriers and sneering villains getting in the way of their ultimate rise to glory, before culminating in a triumphant victory where the musical score bursts with as much excitement and satisfaction as the in-film onlookers. It is a film that, by all accounts, does everything you’d expect a Disney sports movie to do.

The crucial question to ask, though, is whether or not Young Woman and the Sea executes its conventional structure well enough, so that even viewers overly familiar with the formula can enjoy it despite the familiarity. The answer is yes, because while it certainly isn’t setting out to rewrite the rulebook, this film is a pleasant and likeable depiction of a truly inspirational sporting figure.

It begins in early 20th century New York, when young Trudy (Daisy Ridley) is the American-born daughter of German migrants Henry (Kim Bodina) and Gertrude (Jeanette Hain), the latter of whom becomes determined to teach Trudy and her sister Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) how to swim after tragic local events. The sisters eventually find a local women’s team and train to become local champions, though only Trudy is good enough to head to Paris for the 1924 Olympics, which drives a wedge between them, as does the general patriarchal society that refuses to take female athletes seriously. Soon, however, Trudy sets for herself a new goal: swimming the English Channel from France to England, a feat that no woman and very few men have ever accomplished.

It’s not exactly a mystery to decipher how this particular story ends. Historical facts aside, it’s doubtful that Disney, with its tried-and-tested sports movie formula, would make a feel-good flick about someone who comes up short on their dreams, or at the very least doesn’t succeed in some meaningful way. Because it’s so easy now to identify certain aspects of this formula, such as certain dramatic beats that lead from one act into the next, Young Woman and the Sea is assuredly predictable in its overall storytelling, as contributed by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson. The writer ensures that the story is played as safe and accessible as Disney would allow, right down to a tone that is unmistakably family-friendly and chirpier than a more mature biopic would opt for. It does also mean, however, that much of Ederle’s other life accomplishments, such as her Olympics success and later struggles with her loss of hearing, are either played down for dramatic impact, or reduced to the ending text that details what happened next to these historical figures.

Nathanson isn’t particularly subtle when it comes to his script’s overarching themes of patriarchal oppression, either. This is the kind of movie where nearly every scene might as well come with a flashing neon sign that says “SEXISM IS BAD”, and while no rational mind can argue against that statement, the way that this film repeatedly conveys that message is almost ridiculously heavy-handed, to where it almost undermines the message itself. It also paves the way for a number of two-dimensional male archetypes who are cartoonishly stuffy when confronted with the fact that a woman wants to do the same thing that a man can do. The best example on display here is Christopher Eccleston, who plays a moustachioed Scottish coach so openly spiteful towards female swimmers that he deliberately sabotages any chance of success out of pure pettiness. Regardless of whether or not that was how this character behaved in real life (as was speculated by many at the time), it is indicative of the writer’s surface-level approach to gender politics that reduce the genuine conflict to a mere black-and-white situation.

By most accounts, Young Woman and the Sea is a prototypical Disney sports movie, one with blatant themes and a polished presentation. However, for what it is, the film is good at leaving you with a resounding feeling of inspiration, because Rønning’s direction steers some stunning cinematography, a rousing musical score by Amelia Warner, and Daisy Ridley’s chirpy lead performance toward a plentiful conclusion that is nearly impossible to not smile at. Even Nathanson gives his characters enough moments to charm and come through as their own people, though not all are fortunate to have as much screen time, like Sian Clifford and Stephen Graham who show up as pivotal coaching figures in Trudy’s career but have little to do other than give the protagonist some meaningful advice. Nonetheless, it is a very likeable film, with moments that are bound to win over audiences and deliver a satisfying experience for anyone looking for a gentle, inoffensive movie to find on the big screen.

Speaking of the big screen, that was a last-minute decision by Disney, who were originally going to send it straight to streaming but changed course after positive test screenings. That was a good move, for Young Woman and the Sea has a strong theatrical quality to its filmmaking and storytelling that simply would not have the same effect on Disney+. No matter what you make of the film, it’s one that you’ll at least be glad you saw in a cinema where it belongs.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Young Woman and the Sea is a likeable sports biopic that tells the inspirational story of Gertrude Ederle in a heavily formulaic, and often very unsubtle, but nonetheless entertaining and accessible manner.

Three out of five stars

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