‘Maiden’ allows viewers to bask in pioneering women sailors’ triumph

Posted 8/7/19

As the story of the first all-woman crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989-90 unfolds in the engaging documentary “Maiden,” I marveled at how perfectly the real-life events seemed scripted to play out as an inspiring epic of a movie.

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‘Maiden’ allows viewers to bask in pioneering women sailors’ triumph

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As the story of the first all-woman crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989-90 unfolds in the engaging documentary “Maiden,” I marveled at how perfectly the real-life events seemed scripted to play out as an inspiring epic of a movie.

For those who were alive back then, 30 years in the past feels like both a lifetime and an eye-blink ago — I was 14 and starting my freshman year of high school — and the juxtaposition of amateur-shot and archival news footage from the race back then, with the head-and-shoulders interviews of those same women crew members now, highlights both how much time has passed and how much each of those striving, independent women have remained so wonderfully themselves.

Much of the film functions as a biography of the team’s skipper, Tracy Edwards, tracing her path from a troubled childhood home to an aimlessly adrift adulthood, before she signed on as a cook for an otherwise all-male crew during the 1985-85 iteration of the same yacht race. But the film itself wouldn’t have been possible without her childhood best friend and crew mate Jo Gooding, who shot much of the footage of her team’s 1989-90 voyage that we see here.

While Gooding was so inexperienced at sailing that she could only join the team as a cook (following in Edwards’ footsteps), she demonstrates the instinctively talented eye of a motion picture camera operator in “Maiden,” capturing Edwards and her crew not only during such dramatic scenes as crashing their ship’s bow against veritable walls of waves, but also in quiet moments of self-doubt and vulnerability.

Director Alex Holmes has the good sense to get out of these women’s way and let them tell their own stories, and by shooting their interviews without allowing them to prepare or rehearse their answers, he captures their genuine emotions, as raw and powerful now as they were three decades ago.

Not only was this a sailing crew coming together for the first time to take part in one of the most competitive of yacht races, but they were also being buffeted by the sexist judgments, double standards and diminished expectations of the less-than-objective news media and their male competitors.

Edwards is unsparing in her self-criticisms, freely acknowledging the mistakes she made that cost her crew precious time in completing each leg of the race, but we’re also treated to her evolution, from initially rejecting the term “feminist,” to gradually realizing the broader scope of what she’s fighting for.

As weird as it feels to safeguard against revealing spoilers about an actual historic event, what makes the conclusion of “Maiden” so moving, to the point that you’ll be hard-pressed not to join the women being interviewed in shedding tears of joy over it, is that it would seem unrealistic even within the context of a Marvel superhero film, and yet, as Gooding says, “What if I told you that it did happen?”

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