MAIDEN (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated PG

(for language, thematic elements, some suggestive content, and brief smoking images)
Released: June 28, 2019 limited; expands in August
Runtime: 97 minutes
Directed by: Alex Holmes
Starring: Tracy Edwards, Jo Gooding, Sally Creaser Hunter, Tanja Visser, Marie-Claude Kieffer Heys, Dawn Riley, Michele Paret, Jeni Mundy, Nancy Harris

It’s amazing how the simple act of opening a random book can change the course of a life forever – and make history while doing it.

That sense of destiny and determination permeates Maiden, an emotional gauntlet of a documentary about the first all-female sailboat crew to compete in a race around the world.

It’s a shame that this monumental sporting breakthrough is virtually unknown to the global culture (an injustice this film should rectify), but that ignorance is bliss when it comes to experiencing this true story for the first time. All trailers, previews, and synopses should be avoided prior to viewing, and spoilers will be absent here.

I can’t remember the last time a movie affected me so deeply and moved this much. Tears flowed. At times I sobbed. I may have even blubbered.

This is more than just an inspiring, empowering tale for women (though it most certainly is that); the pioneering drive and unrelenting resolve displayed by the crew of the racing yacht “Maiden” are an inspiration to me as a man because these women are examples and heroes for everyone, and not just for those of their gender.

In what could – and should! – be the premise of a Disney “princess” musical (there’s even a royal benefactor), Maiden tells the journey of Tracy Edwards, a girl who grew up in rural England during the 1980s. Born to a loving family, Tracy eventually faced tragedy and then adversity. By the time she was out of school, Edwards had no direction in life.

Providence had different plans, however, taking Edwards’ drifting choices and (following that fated book epiphany, teased above) aligning them toward a passion for competitive sailboating.

The only place that the male-dominated sport had for women back in the 1980s was as a ship’s cook, but Edwards’ ambitions went far beyond tagging along for the ride. She wanted to compete, to do so against the world’s best and, rather than being motivated by some feminist ideology or mission (she publicly rejected the label), she wanted to test herself against such impossible circumstances – for anyone.

Edwards’ pursuit to do exactly that is truly a story of making the impossible possible, an indefatigable quest of not letting anything deter her from fulfilling her dream, all while leading a whole team of (mostly novice) women around that “impossible” goal.

Director Alex Holmes lets the people involved tell the story, not just Edwards and her crew but also the male competitors and misogynist media writers who had derisively (and publicly) dismissed them. Their doubters were everywhere, even including Edwards’ own mother. But that onslaught of chauvinistic contempt was simply fuel for the fire in their souls.

Holmes structures it all brilliantly, setting the testimonials (which stir up raw emotions with a surprising sense of immediacy, even now, decades later) against a deep archive of well-researched footage, much of which came from Jo Gooding, the ship’s cook and videographer, and Edwards’ childhood friend.

The heart swells with every breakthrough the crew makes and then sinks with every setback, growing in the chest and rising in the throat, not just from emotion but, more often than not, nerve-racking tension.

The global race at 33,00 miles, it’s literally the longest on Earth) is of the most grueling sort, where the stakes can be lethal and require moments of not only courage but genuine acts of heroism. As Edwards bluntly asserts: “The ocean’s always trying to kill you.”

Fitting the axiom “truth is stranger than fiction” to a T, Maiden goes in directions you can’t possibly predict and that most screenwriters wouldn’t dare contrive, right down to a finale that’s as beautiful as it is unexpected.

The whole thing absolutely overwhelmed me. It’s the kind of singular, special experience that should be shared, both with friends and family as well as in a theater with an audience. It not only rousing in terms of its personal uplift; the film’s power is also communal.

Holmes may not reinvent any basics tenets of documentary filmmaking, but he more than makes up for that with an absolute mastery of storytelling that would be the envy of any filmmaker. Maiden is as fulfilling a movie-going experience as any I could imagine or hope for.

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