At least in filmmatic terms, director Alex Holmes’ Maiden is as simple and basic as it comes. That’s not in anyway a negative here. There’s a hugely compelling story, oodles of actual footage and pitch perfect talking head segments. It’s stitched together like the best of underdog stories. Yet like so many documentaries rife for a traditional remake, the way it’s presented here, makes that unnecessary. It’s just that good. Attempting to make it more rigidly fit the Hollywood structure, would rob the proceedings of some of its magic.
In 1989, one scrappy woman had a somewhat monumental dream: to be the first female skipper of a ship in the Whitebread Round The World Race. The race was grueling for anyone to under take, regardless of gender. Lasting for over 9 months and covering over 40,000 miles, it’s one of the purest endurance tests out there. Her name was Tracy Edwards. And not only did she fulfill her dream, but she did so with the first all-woman lead team in the race’s history. For a 24 year old who remortgaged her house and put herself at the mercy of others, it may not have seemed like an act of courage. As she herself so succinctly puts it, “there was no other choice, this was something I had to do.”
As is to be expected with any documentary whose subject involves women overcoming odds, sexism rears its head throughout Maiden. Holmes doesn’t shy away from this, letting things run their course. In fact he does one better: he invests in bringing male journalists and male competitors along to recount their part in events. Most of those seen here had less than favorable things to say (captured on camera) in 1989 and surprising no one, most of them are more than happy to shoot themselves in the foot, all over again, in the present. After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Edwards, much like her time skippering the Maiden, is the soul of the documentary. She’s flawed, combative, stubborn, as well as determined. And that’s just how she describes herself. After a generally decent early childhood, the passing of a parent (and introduction of a step-father) complicates Edwards’ world and compels her to run away, eventually falling into the open arms of yacht racing. Given circumstances of the time, she’s only able to enter this seemingly alien field by working as a cook. Yet it’s one step closer towards her goal. A mere pit stop at an in-between juncture. As much as she was part of the crew, she was still viewed as a woman first, in the sport. The effect of which leads to one of the most remarkable stories of perseverance, teamwork and triumph, that was until now a mere history footnote.
If hearing the phrase “long distance yacht racing” sounds like a deterrent, don’t let it turn you off. The “yachts” are essentially massive sail boats. Holmes presents things matter-of-factly, in a way where no knowledge of the sport is necessary, to get on board. It helps that there are heaps and heaps of footage of the actual race here. Some of which is on the Maiden itself. The first hand accounting helps illustrate just how difficult the race truly is. This isn’t just a battle against other opponents, but a test of wills against nature, your crew members and in the lowest of moments, yourself. The latter strikes Edwards the hardest, as she butts heads continually with those around her.
Maiden isn’t the type of piece that wants to radically change the way you think about a subject or topic. Instead it wants to cast a light on a small but inspiring story. About people doing something that they were told they couldn’t do. The fact that it’s women toppling the odds, is all the more inspiring and timely. You can always do with more of that. Using the underdog framework of a blockbuster, Alex Holmes does a commendable job, bringing this slice of history to anyone with an open mind. If not for anything else, the tale of Tracy Edwards and the women of the Maiden serves as a reminder that no one should ever settle for being told what their place is. That it’s wrapped up in the package of a stirring documentary, is just more cause for celebration.
Review: ‘Maiden’ Sets A High-Water Mark For Effectively Compelling Straightforward Documentaries