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Daisy Ridley swims the shallows


Based on Glenn Stout’s nonfiction account of the same title, “Young Woman and the Sea” gets by on the careful engineering of clichés, Daisy Ridley and a really good piece of irresistibly rousing history.

In 1926, 20-year-old Gertrude Ederle, raised in a German immigrant household in New York City, swam the English Channel in 14 hours and 31 minutes. She bested the previous record-holder, a male, by two hours and became the first female athlete to make the crossing.

Two million people turned out for her ticker-tape parade. President Calvin Coolidge called her “America’s best girl.” After decades and centuries of patriarchal whining about women, swimming and the galling impropriety of the words “women” and “swimming” in close proximity, Ederle’s feat changed the course of athletics.

The movie tidies things up for its tour of Ederle’s life, focused by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can,” the forthcoming “Lion King” prequel “Mufasa”) on 15 or so of the subject’s first 20 years. Trudy, as Gertrude was called by some, initially was not the most talented swimmer in the family; her older sister, Meg, was. That shifted soon enough; by the early 1920s, and Trudy’s late teens, she was the most famous female athlete in America, winning gold and bronze medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics. An initial go at the Channel crossing proved unsuccessful, and (some say) actively sabotaged by Ederle’s coach, Jabez Wolffe, who’d himself attempted the crossing 22 times to no avail.

“Young Woman and the Sea” plays around with various degrees of truth and fiction, because it’s not a documentary and, you know, welcome to the concept of movies based on true stories. None of them, not a one, tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s not their job. In the film, Ederle’s Olympic triumphs (she won gold and bronze medals) become invisible, rewritten instead as a general part of a general failure and a huge setback for women’s sports. In the film, her second, successful Channel attempt comes mere hours after the first, not a year later.

These things don’t necessarily matter (to me, at least) when a movie’s working as drama. This happens just often enough — and by the precision-tooled setback/triumph/setback/triumph pacing of the climax, just rousingly enough — to take care of business.

Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle in
Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle in “Young Woman and the Sea,” about the first woman to swim the English Channel. (Elena Nenkova / Disney Enterprises)

Throughout, director Joachim Ronning, next in line for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, manages a fairly pleasing blend of practical 1920s-era recreations, digital effects (plentiful but rarely completely fraudulent-looking) and shamelessly effective melodrama. Every sexist, misogynist resistance point to Ederle’s mission, feels not unlikely (it wasn’t; it was assuredly omnipresent a century ago) but boiled down to reductive, pencil-sketched character traits. Man A is a good man because treats Trudy as an equal, with respect; Men B, C, D, E and F-Z are not good men because they snigger and sneer at her, and all women.

And is too much to have the sniveling Scots swim coach (Christopher Eccleston) actually heave a radio through the nearest window pane at a key moment? Maybe, but who cares? The preview screening crowd was well and truly into the swim of things by that point. While never getting the material she needs to match her skills, Ridley creates a heroine both storybook-vibrant and human-scaled.

It’s not the creative license part of sports biopics that bugs me. It’s the screenwriters’ avoidance of how people actually talked, and behaved, in the time and place of the storyline. In this instance we have a German immigrant family, with good actors (led by Jeanette Hain and Kim Bodnia as Gertud and Henry Ederle) at the helm, yet there’s no attempt at even mentioning the anti-German sentiment of the mid- and post-World War I era. Sometimes it’s not what’s in a movie that weakens it, but what isn’t.

Yet this is sheer irrelevance by the end. Trudy Ederle’s paradoxically exhilarating ordeal amid the choppy waters, threatening skies, jellyfish and sheer physical punishment of the Channel was made for the screen. Not even the most generic film score in recent memory can keep “Young Woman and the Sea,” its title pulling a real-life variation from Hemingway’s old man and his sea, from reaching its destination.

“Young Woman and the Sea” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for thematic elements, some language and partial nudity)

Running time: 2:08

How to watch: Premieres in theaters May 31

Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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