Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Chad Oman and Jeff Nathanson   Director: Joachim Rønning   Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson  Cast: Daisy Ridley, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Stephen Graham, Kim Bodnia, Jeanette Hain, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn Fleshler, Olive Abercrombie, Lilly Aspell, Sian Clifford and Ethan Rouse   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios

Grade: C+

This biographical film about Gertrude, or Trudy, Ederle, a New York daughter of immigrants who became the first woman to swim the English Channel—a touchstone event in the evolution of public respect for female athletics—turns the achievement into a junior varsity version of “Nyad.”  Joachim Rønning’s movie represents the process of Disneyfication as completely as the dark, terrifying folk tales the studio turned into family-friendly animated movies in the past.  It’s a throwback to the sort of feel-good true-life sports tales Hollywood used to churn out in considerable numbers, riddled with omissions, factual alterations and upbeat messages, as well as to Disney’s tried-and-true live-action formulas.  As such it works in its old-fashioned way, and it’s certainly handsomely produced.  But it also feels like a homogenized inspirational delivery system.

At least the lamely Hemingwayesque title can’t be blamed on the studio; it comes from Glenn Stout’s 2009 source book, “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,” on which Jeff Nathanson based his screenplay.  Nathanson constructs the story as a succession of obstacles systematically overcome by resolute Ederle as she fulfills her youthful ambition first simply to swim and then to swim to glory.

It begins, however, with dire prospects, as young Trudy (Olive Abercrombie) lies near death, ill with measles from which the doctor suggests she cannot recover.  But in a reversal presented in the most lighthearted possible manner, it’s not the doctor who eventually comes down the stairs from her room, but Trudy herself, ravenously hungry—much to the relief and delight of her parents Henry (Kim Bodnia), a hardworking, traditionalist butcher, and Gertrude Anna (Jeanette Hain), a no-nonsense homemaker, and their two other children Meg (Lilly Aspell) and Henry Jr. (Raphael J. Bishop).  Trudy emerges not just famished, but determined to learn to swim, having observed during her illness a horrifying sight from her window—a burning ship from which women could not escape because they could not make it to shore.  (The disaster alluded to actually occurred years earlier than suggested here.)

Though her having contracted a highly contagious disease precludes her from using public pools (most of which are reserved for boys anyway), she pesters her father into teaching her to swim off the beach at Coney Island by incessantly singing “Ain’t We Got Fun” until he agrees (though the song wasn’t first performed until 1920) .  Then her mother enrolls her and Meg at a girls’ swimming club run by pioneer Charlotte (Sian Clifford), where despite the trainer’s initial skepticism—she requires Trudy to fill the boiler with coal to cover tuition—she proves the outstanding student, demonstrating her prowess in a public competition with a visiting Australian team.  By this time Trudy is being played by Daisy Ridley and Meg, with whom she’s very close, by Tilda Cobham-Hervey.

Her success prompts James Sullivan (Glenn Fleshler), presumably the co-founder of the Amateur Athletic Union who was also active in the U.S. Olympic Movement (though Sullivan actually died in 1914), to invite her to join the swimming team at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  Unfortunately he also assigns them a poor coach in Jabez Wolffe (Christopher Eccleston, who doesn’t just masticate the scenery but swallows it whole), a misogynist who doesn’t train them properly, and Trudy is disappointed in her performance—sharing a gold relay medal but winning only bronze in her individual races.  So she decides to get Sullivan to sponsor an attempt to swim the Channel by winning a bet that she can traverse seven miles from Coney Island to New Jersey, where he’s dining with his mother, in three hours. 

She wins the bet, of course, and proceeds to the French coast, but unfortunately is once again assigned Wolffe as her coach, and he in effect sabotages her first attempt by slipping her some doctored tea (a bit of speculation).  That generates suspicion from Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham), an eccentric Brit who’d swum the Channel himself; he convinces Trudy to try again under his guidance, with her father and sister, who’ve come to take her home, urging her on from an accompanying boat.  To pull off the effort, Trudy must in effect escape from the ship on which Sullivan is bringing her back to New York.  (In reality a year elapsed between her two attempts, though the film fudges that.)

The film is at its best in the recreation of Trudy’s two tries in crossing the Channel, with Rønning, a past master at such things (he co-directed 2013’s “Kon-Tike” with Espen Sandberg) bringing some genuine suspense to them, though not the sense of gritty desperation that Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin gave to “Nyad.”  The tension is deflated not only by the crowd-pleasing supporting antics of Bodnia, Cobham-Hervey and Graham, to whom editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle often cuts for exhortation, and by periodic inserts of Hain’s steely Gertrude Anna as, accompanied by older, comic-relief brother Henry Jr. (now Ethan Rouse), she listens to progress reports at a New York radio station’s broadcast booth, but by Ridley’s performance.  It’s not that the actress doesn’t do what’s asked of her, and do it well; but Ederle is portrayed here in the form of a forties style movie star turn—she’s an ever-confident, heroic figure with a smile that can fill the screen, capable of sending a suitor her father wants to set her up with running in panic by staging an accident on a Coney Island pier.  Even when she finally comes ashore on English soil, Ridley’s Ederle doesn’t look so much bruised and battered from her ordeal as simply exhausted, and in the triumphal parade back in New York City (where even Babe Ruth is shown in the crowd cheering her), she looks like a million bucks.  (The bit about the immigration officer asking for her passport as she wades ashore in Kent, however, appears to be true, despite the fact that it might strike one as an obvious comic invention.)

The rest of the cast play to the rafters.  Most adept among the would-be scene-stealers are Bodnia and Graham, though the others aren’t far behind.  All are decked out in elaborate period garb courtesy of costumer Gabrielle Binder, and inhabit a world of more than a century past recreated with exceptional care by production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg, even though CGI manipulation is often pronounced (e.g., the sequence in which Ederle swims through a horde of jellyfish, or the final parade sequence); the cinematography by Oscar Faura captures it all in lustrous widescreen images.   But Amelia Warner’s score leaves no opportunity to rouse viewers’ emotions overlooked, with diminishing returns. 

The movie reduces an accomplishment that energized the entire world of women’s athletics, which hasn’t even now reached parity with that of men but has moved steadily forward since Ederle’s 1926 achievement, to a rather shallow display of endless spunk.  Designed as a pure crowd-pleaser, on that basis it certainly succeeds; but it’s a pretty low bar to clear.