'Maiden': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A rousing, real-life, feminist adventure tale.

Alex Holmes' documentary about the first all-female crew of an around-the-world yacht race will screen at Sundance after premiering last year in Toronto.

The camera drops us into a fiercely turbulent sea as a voiceover says, “The ocean is always trying to kill you.” That is the dramatic start of Maiden, Alex Holmes’ rousing documentary, which flips gracefully between past and present as it turns a decades-old yachting race into an inspiring feminist adventure.

That voice belongs to the film’s heroine, British sailor Tracy Edwards. In 1989, when she was in her 20s, she restored an old boat that she rechristened Maiden and put together the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Mixing archival material and fresh interviews with Edwards and her crewmembers, Holmes creates an engaging, suspenseful story with layers of social resonance. Maiden is gripping and effective even if — maybe especially if — you have absolutely no interest in sailing.

Edwards on camera today is energetic and sun-weathered, as she recalls the start of her career. After a rocky adolescence, she was taken with the idea of sailing and decided to learn by signing onto the crew of a yacht. The owner told her no “girl” would ever be on his boat, but she was persistent and was taken on as a cook and cleaner. A woman on board was enough of an oddity in the late 1980s to make Edwards the subject of a human-interest television news spot.

Frustrated by her second-class treatment working on various boats, and with the confidence and inexperience of youth, she decided to raise money, put together a crew of skilled women and enter the months-long race. Unable to afford a new yacht, she settled for a used one and hoped for the best.

Facing the camera and shot no-frills style, crewmembers from Maiden recall those days. They don’t sugarcoat how harsh Edwards could be. One of them left weeks before the race began because of a power struggle between herself and Edwards. The backward glances also reveal how the women and Maiden were dismissed and underestimated, derisively called “a tin full of tarts” by one disgruntled male.

The women’s commentary adds personal perspective and social context to the film’s more stunning achievement. Holmes (who has directed television features and documentaries, including Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story) and his editor, Katie Bryer, create a swift as-it-happened narrative about the race itself. Its six legs began and ended in Southampton, England, with colorful stops including Uruguay and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Maiden won some legs, lost others, and at one point was 16 hours ahead of any other boat, a lead too good to last. The suspense works because — well, how many of us know who won the Whitbread Round the World Race of 1989-90?

Plenty of archival news from the period illustrates the story, but the most striking photography in Maiden is the wealth of first-hand, sometimes amazing footage of the journey, some of it shot by crewmembers. Crossing the choppy Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, they navigate past dangerous ice floes. The women recall that it took a half hour to put on and another 30 minutes to take off all their layers of clothing, which only protected them in the brutal cold for minutes. They had to be tethered down to prevent being blown off the deck.

During a warmer leg of the race, they decided to pull media attention away from the other yachts by arriving at the dock wearing bathing suits instead of their usual sloppy T-shirts and shorts. Looking back, they wouldn’t pull that sexualizing trick again, but they were so young and so entrenched in a different era that Edwards herself told a television reporter she was no feminist. She changed her mind soon enough.

As captivating as Maiden is, it leaves a lot of questions open. How did Edwards become knowledgeable enough to skipper the boat in the first place? One day she’s a cook, the next she’s doing complicated navigation charts. Holmes has clearly decided not to go anywhere near nerdy details.

And the film gives no hint at what happened to any of Maiden’s crewmembers in the years after that race. Edwards’ dramatic life continued: She tried to create some sailing races of her own only to be driven into bankruptcy, and today, at 56, is a motivational speaker. But leaving those gaps allows Holmes to construct a lean, efficient crowd-pleaser likely to leave audiences cheering.

Production company: New Black Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Tracy Edwards
Director-writer: Alex Holmes
Producers: Victoria Gregory, Alex Holmes
Director of photography: Chris Openshaw
Editor: Katie Bryer

Music: Samuel Sim, Rob Manning

93 minutes