Trailblazing 'Queen of the Waves' resurfaces in new biopic

Daisy Ridley in Young Woman and the Sea
[Disney]

Olympian Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, is being reintroduced to audiences in a powerful new biopic starring Daisy Ridley, and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Young Woman and the Sea follows Ederle's journey from surviving measles to breaking gender conventions of the time by getting in a pool. She went on to set world swimming records and win Olympic medals, before swimming 21 miles to cross the Channel in 1926, and became known as "Queen of the Waves".

The story's heart is about family, female strength, sisterhood and sportsmanship.

Bruckheimer, whose long list of blockbuster credits include Top Gun: Maverick, Pirates of the Caribbean and Beverly Hills Cop, said this was his highest-tested film to date, meaning it performed very well in test audience screenings.

"What I love to do is to tell stories about people that got forgotten in time," he told the BBC.

"Trudy Ederle was the first girl to swim the English channel. Only five men had done it prior to her and she beat their record by two hours - extraordinary story. She had the biggest parade down Fifth Avenue for an athlete ever - and that's 100 years ago - yet nobody knows who she is."

Ederle family in Young Woman and the Sea
Ederle was one of six children born to German immigrants running a butcher's shop in New York City [Disney]

Bruckheimer told BBC 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake the film took - an unusually long - nine years to make.

"It's got a female lead, it's in the water, it's period, and it's a sports movie. All things that conventional wisdom is they don't work," he explained. "They're very difficult to get made. And the water part of its makes it really hard because it's expensive, but we figured out a way to make it for a price, and Disney stepped up."

Young Woman and the Sea was originally set to be only released on Disney's streaming service, but audience response to the film was so strong, studio executives decided it needed to be seen on the big screen.

"Disney said 'wait a second.... this is what our brand is really about'," Bruckheimer said. "It's real family entertainment, it's emotional, it's inspirational, it's got humour, it's got all the things you go to the cinema for."

American swimmer Gertrude Ederle, the first female to swim across the English Channel, is honoured for her historic swim and crowned 'Queen of the Waves', September 8, 1926 in New York City. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Gertrude Ederle is honoured for her historic swim and crowned "Queen of the Waves" at celebrations in New York City [Getty Images]
Photo shows a general view of the Ederle welcoming procession coming up lower Broadway, the street jammed with humanity from side to side, while Gertrude Ederle, waves her greeting from the first automobile in the procession. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Ederle's achievement in 1926 sparked a massive celebration in the streets of New York [Getty Images]

Bruckheimer praised the casting of Ridley, calling her "a terrific actress" and "powerhouse".

"She's physical, she's got those broad shoulders, and she's beautiful. But it was her passion for the movie, she loved it, she loved the screenplay, and waited quite a while until we got the money to make it.

"She worked so hard to become a really proficient swimmer. When we're filming she's out there for 12 to 14 hours and 55-degree water and just powering through it. On the sea you have four seasons in one day. It rains and is sunny, current changes. And then it's real cloudy and you have to try to match the scene before it, so you have to wait for the light. It's very hard but somehow we got it done and it turned out terrific."

Ridley underwent intensive physical training for the role, and had Olympic silver medallist Siobhan-Marie O'Connor as her coach.

The "final swim" took nine days of filming in the Black Sea, Ridley told BBC1's The One Show on Tuesday.

Ridley also confirmed that there is a new Star Wars film in the pipeline, saying: "I'm soon to meet Steven Knight to read a script and it's all very exciting."

Knight, who created Peaky Blinders, has written the script of a New Jedi Order film that may see the return of Ridley as Rey Skywalker.

However, reviews call her role in Young Woman and the Sea her "finest to date" after nearly a decade in the spotlight.

Legendary long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, whose personal story of swimming from Cuba to Florida was dramatised last year, also praised Ridley's "captivating" performance, on social media.

She wrote on Instagram: "The 1926 heroism of the first woman to swim the English Channel had me enthralled scene-by-scene."

This is one of the first photos to arrive in America from Europe via Quebec, and airplane to New York, showing Gertrude Ederle in her successful Channel swim. This photo shows Margaret Ederle, sister of Trudie, Burgess, and Ishak Helmy, the Egyptian, watching Trudie's progress from the tug Alsace, which accompanied Gertrude across the English Channel on August 6th
Gertrude Ederle being watched during her Channel swim by her sister Margaret and coach Bill Burgess from the tugboat Alsace [Getty Images]

Fellow British cast members include Stephen Graham who plays Bill Burgess, the second man to swim the Channel, and Christopher Eccleston as Jabez Wolffe, a swimmer who failed the crossing himself 22 times.

Bruckheimer had no qualms about using a predominantly British cast for the film.

"They're so well-trained. They're terrific," he said. "When we made Pirates [of the Caribbean] I think we cast the entire movie over here pretty much except for Johnny, because they're just consummate professionals. I've had such a great experience working over here in London. We're making a picture right now with Brad Pitt on Silverstone."

However, he warned that there may be more tough times ahead for Hollywood and that "things aren't back to how they normally are" for film and TV productions.

"We went through a hard time. We still are because we're still recovering from two strikes and there's another strike looming or possible strike on the horizon at the end of July. So we got to get past that, and then I think things will kind of normalise."

Bruckheimer, who is 79, also said there are no plans for him to slow down."I just love what I do. I really love it," he said. "If I can take you away from your life, or what's bothering you for two hours and make you feel something and walk out feeling better and inspired I've done my job".

After her successful Channel swim, Ederle injured her back and lost her hearing. She retired from competitive swimming and spent the rest of her life teaching deaf children how to swim. She never married and died in 2003, aged 98.

Young Woman and the Sea is directed by Joachim Rønning and opens in select UK cinemas on Friday 31 May.