Comfortable and Furious

Young Woman and the Sea (2024)

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Early in Young Woman and the Sea, Henry Ederle (Kim Bodnia) scoffs at his wife Gertrude (Jeanette Hain) when she announces their daughters Trudy and Meg will learn to swim, Henry condescendingly stating “it is not proper for a woman to swim.” Two important bits of context here – 1) it is the year 1914 and 2) Gertrude and Henry have just learned that nearly one hundred women have died in a ferryboat fire, the women staying on the burning boat because they did not know how to swim. To recap, Henry would rather his daughters burn to death because women swimming is not acceptable decorum. I’d like to tell you that, one hundred ten years later, we’re past such asinine thinking, but the Supreme Court and the placekicker for the Kansas City Chiefs prove otherwise.

This attitude towards women is what young Trudy Aderle (Daisy Ridley) must overcome to learn how to swim and, eventually, attempt swimming the English Channel. We know she has it in her because the first thing we see her do is defeat the measles that nearly killed her. Like every underdog story, Trudy’s defiance is on display again and again throughout the film as Trudy navigates several obstacles, usually men. She has to fight her dad to let her learn how to swim, fight her first swim coach Charlotte (Sian Clifford) to let her learn how to swim specific swim strokes, fight her Olympic Games coach Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston) just to train during the trip across the ocean (to Paris), fight the head of the Women’s Swimming Association James Sullivan (Glenn Fleshler) to sponsor her attempt at swimming the English Channel, fight Wolffe again on her first attempt at swimming the English Channel, and the English Channel itself.

All of this fighting is necessary character development because we need to believe Trudy has it in her to accomplish such a daring feat as swimming the English Channel. And character development is where this movie really shines because the characters drive the simple story of Trudy’s life’s journey culminating in becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel. We need to believe that Trudy can win over all of the people who doubted her, but it isn’t just Trudy that makes this story work. Henry is the traditional father figure, harumphing at every turn of events, expecting his daughters to marry whom he chooses and work in his butcher’s shop to support the family business. When he finally accepts and embraces Trudy’s path, it is a very emotionally satisfying moment, Henry coming to realize supporting Trudy outweighs his own preconceived notions for her.

Trudy’s older sister Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) represents the life that Trudy is destined for if Trudy ever gives up her fight. Meg doesn’t have that fight in her, so she succumbs to the inertia of tradition that Henry pushes so hard. And while Henry seems like the villain at first, Wolffe is the real villain of this story (and how perfect is it that a guy named Wolffe in real life is the villain of a Disney movie?). Like Henry, Wolffe is the epitome of misogyny, refusing to let the women train prior to the Olympics, controlling everything down to the food they eat and how much they eat, then doing it all over again to Trudy as she trains for the Channel swim. The difference is Wolffe never evolves and the audience hates him for it. As they should.

Perhaps the best character outside of Trudy is Gertrude. While Henry is the traditional head of the household and breadwinner, Gertrude is the real power in the house. When she decides something – like the girls will learn how to swim – Henry puts up a token resistance, then backs off with barely a harumph. It is clear that Trudy gets her defiance and drive from her mother and Gertrude’s strength is on display throughout the film. As satisfying as Henry’s acceptance of Trudy is, Gertrude commanding an entire radio station during Trudy’s ultimate English Channel crossing is truly gratifying.

Like any good sports story, there are also those minor characters that help push our hero over the hump. In this case, there is Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham), the second man to swim the English Channel. He’s eccentric and larger than life and is just the person Trudy needs to replace Wolffe as her coach. Like Gertrude, Burgess is headstrong and does not take no for an answer. He protects Trudy’s swim while she is in the water, even to the point of rebuffing Henry’s desperate pleas to help Trudy when Henry believes the Channel has beaten Trudy. Like with the rest of the film, the satisfaction at the climax is partially a direct result of a Burgess’ character arc, going from an unserious clown to one of the people who always believed in Trudy.

Despite knowing how the film ends – do you honestly believe Disney would make a movie about an athlete who failed? – it still delivers a well-told story with as much drama as can be hoped for in a foregone conclusion. The actors do a great job of creating characters that are easy to sympathize with or root against. It’s a testament to good writing and acting that we still want to cheer loudly for Trudy, cringe during the moments when the swim seems impossible, and cry when her feet finally find sand. One hundred and ten years later, we are still inspired by what women achieved against such small odds. Well, most of us are at least.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and remember to teach your kids how to swim. 



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