‘Maiden’ Review: Racing Toward Equality

If you want to get an idea of how women, their lives and their contributions get written out of history, consider the Wikipedia entry on “The 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Race,” which includes the following two simple, factually correct sentences:

“This race featured the first all-woman crew on Tracy Edwards’ Maiden. Although in a much smaller boat than many of their male counterparts the women fared well — claiming two leg victories in Division D.”

These lines are dutifully informative. They’re also a maddeningly incomplete record of how Edwards, who turned 27 during the race, and her young team became headline news across the world. If you want the fuller, richer story of the women’s journey — their struggles at sea and on land, including virulent sexism — the place to turn is “Maiden,” a sleek, exhilarating documentary look back at their race into history. Because while the Wikipedia entry on the 1989-90 competition includes basic information about the event, it neglects the fight for gender parity that Edwards and her crew represent.

The around-the-world race — now called the Ocean Race — is grueling (and terrifying sounding). Established in 1973, it takes place every three years and lasts up to nine months. The race starts in the fall in Europe; the 2017-18 event, which began in Alicante, Spain, included 11 legs and chewed through 45,000 miles. Given that this is yachting, it’s an elite competition, of course, though not merely because it has also been a historically male one. Boats cost around $1 million to make, and the competition can cost far more. In the 2017-18 race only seven boats participated; in 1989-90 — when Edwards skippered the Maiden — 23 competed in four divisions.

The director Alex Holmes folds in just enough background in “Maiden” to orient non-yachting viewers, but not enough to turn off landlubbers or those without sporty proclivities. His main hook is Edwards, a picture-perfect female rebel. Using archival and newly shot material, Holmes tells the story of this unruly daughter who left home when she was young, fell in love with sailing and — on deciding that she wanted to navigate the world — found her cause and herself, a discovery that made her a feminist exemplar. It’s an exciting trajectory, partly because it nudges a heroic portrait into a ticktock race toward equality. (The documentary doesn’t say much about her post-milestone years.)

This political narrative arc is what distinguishes “Maiden,” which draws you in even when the predigital images prove less than lovely. Holmes, working with the editor Katie Bryer, uses the archival material smartly, weaving it in to create a sense of you-are-there immediacy and to build the pace as the Maiden sails, stalls and rushes toward the finish. These visuals are complemented by contemporary interviews in which Edwards, a vibrantly natural storyteller, and other crew members recall their great race with both mist in their eyes and modulated outrage. One male journalist covering the event, the sailor Sally Hunter says, called the Maiden “a tin full of tarts.”

It isn’t surprising that the team was plagued by misogyny, but it’s still unsettling that journalists at the time felt so comfortable openly denigrating these women. But then, of course they did; they were sanctioned and empowered by their publications. Even now, one of the male reporters interviewed for the documentary seems entirely too comfortable with his past coverage. Holmes doesn’t challenge him, but he doesn’t need to; the journalist’s smiles speak volumes. They’re also a necessary reminder. What these women did — and what this one race reveals about individual struggle and institutional power — is galvanizing, but of course the larger, difficult story isn’t over.


Rated PG for sexism and ocean peril. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes.


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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis Facebook

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