Even if you aren’t familiar with the story of the Maiden Grand Britain, you probably have a pretty good idea of how the story of Maiden is going to play out. It’s a tale of female perseverance and camaraderie in the face of masculine dominion in a sport that many assumed was too difficult for women to participate in. It feels ripe for fictionalized adaptation, and you can practically count on that inevitability should this documentary perform well enough at the box office. Quite frankly, it doesn’t need much in the way of structural adjustment to be compelling, which at once makes it feel typical but no less extraordinary in the telling. And thankfully documentarian Alex Holmes weaves that tale with such engrossing deftness that it becomes easy to forget just how difficult cobbling together such a narrative with nothing more than interviews and archival footage can be.
Maiden tells the story of that titular charter boat that participated in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989, sailing around the entire world in just under half a year in competition with several other boats of experienced sailors. What made the Maiden so special, though, was its skipper and its crew. The Maiden was the first all-female crew to enter the race, and the effort was spearheaded by a 24-year-old cook, Tracy Edwards (whom we recently had the pleasure of interviewing). Recruiting women who had never been given a chance to compete in a race of this scale, Edwards assembled a crew to prove that women were just as capable as men at winning the grueling endurance race, becoming the unlikely heroes of a competition where they were the assumed underdogs.
Now, as primed as all these issues are for classical achievement-under-adversity storytelling tropes, Holmes is a bit more clever than that in his attempts to highlight just how these women were perceived, both within their ranks and by the outside media. From within, the crew of the Maiden primarily wanted to be taken seriously as equals to their male competitors. They developed a sense of sorority that rivals the connection of some actual families, but they were mainly defined by a competitive drive that frustrated them even when they got third place in their class during one leg of the race. They wanted to push themselves to be their best, and not simply be the only women to cross the finish line. Contrast this with the attitudes of the press, and you see a disparity of condescension, where journalists expressed continual incredulous surprise at their achievements even when the crew personally felt they could have done better. It’s only when the crew of the Maiden starts outclassing more and more of their competition that the male-dominated boating press finally started to recognize that these women truly had the potential to win.
And at the heart of it all was Tracy Edwards herself, who was a far cry from any narrow cultural definition of aspirational femininity and completely upended the expectations of what women could do in competitive sailing. Though at first she wouldn’t have described herself as a feminist, simply a woman who wanted to prove her own capabilities, she eventually came around to see the impact she was having not just on her crew but on the world watching that crew. She could be brash, mean, and stubborn, but she also cared about her crew, acting as the centerpiece for women of varying nationalities and backgrounds to achieve something they might otherwise only have dreamed about. In interviews, the crew isn’t shy about airing the grievances and concerns they had at the time, and Edwards comes across as just as acerbic and self-critical as she apparently was thirty years ago. But there’s also this sense of earned satisfaction in each of these women that only comes from proving yourself when no one believes in you, and they truly believe that without one another or without Edwards leading the charge that they wouldn't have that feeling to share.
In terms of pure filmmaking, Maiden is basic and effective, laying out the beats as you’d expect them for a feminist underdog tale that adheres to a three-act structure surprisingly well for a true story. This isn’t a revolutionary film or an elevation of the documentary form, but it is an empowering message of perseverance for women and their allies in the fight against male hegemony. To some, this might just be another sports story, albeit one with a decidedly more niche sport at its center. But for others, this is a rallying cry for other women to test themselves in traditionally male spaces. Doesn’t get much nobler than that.