2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Sunday Times’ international Golden Globe Race, which offered gold and glory to the first or the fastest person to sail single handedly around the world without stopping.
An unlikely favourite emerged in the young businessman and engineer Donald Crowhurst, who came up with ingenious anti-sinking and communications devices for his trimaran, but filled his sails with bluster and hot air. He set off in such a rush that his gadgets were still in bits all over the boat, and he’d forgotten to take boxes of crucial spare parts for basic maintenance. The plucky young father was quickly forced to accept that his vessel wasn’t fit to take on the fury of the Southern Ocean, let alone finish the race. He decided to take the desperate measure of faking his navigation log. Like a school kid hiding in the bushes and waiting to join a cross-country run on its final lap, he planned to loiter around South America while the other vessels circled the world, before doubling back to England as they approached on their return journey. Following a series of unfortunate events, he indeed found himself at the head of the race, but facing the prospect of humiliation and bankruptcy when his dodge was inevitably exposed.
In early 2018, fifty years after the race, CROWHURST, Simon Rumley’s dramatisation of the story, is due for release courtesy of StudioCanal. A painstaking attention to detail and devotion to authenticity is counterbalanced by a sensitive but intense artistic interpretation of Crowhurst’s gradual descent into solipsistic dissociation. Rumley is a director whose depictions of madness in other films such as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD and FASHIONISTA are superficially outré but always maintain a depth and integrity that honour a much-abused subject. Characters suffering from mental illness are so often othered in film and television, for our titillation. Whether they are apeshit psychotic or plagued by neurosis, Rumley’s characters are always unnervingly human. Clare Crowhurst detested the way that Nicholas Tomalin’s famous book “The Strange Last Journey Of…” painted her husband as a nutty inventor whose zany schemes drove him further down a path to full-blown madness, but Rumley’s Crowhurst is affable, funny, and relatable. He’s no more rash or eccentric than any of his competitors – although he’s a lot more inexperienced. The film’s interpretation of the circumstances around his presumed suicide is respectful and devastating. This is not a boffin gone bonkers, exploited for our entertainment; this is a gentle, ordinary family man driven to drastic measures by love for his family.
The soundtrack comprises hymns and carols, performed by the cast, which moor our hearts firmly on green and pleasant land even as we drift with Donald on anonymous, grey waters. As his mind begins to fracture, we really are tilting in the damp galley with him. Daring use of split screen (nobody can usually get this technique right) evokes the deep and queasy terror Donald struggles to sublimate, not least in the dead of night when he’s haunted by the violent throes of a floundering fish trapped with him in the crowded, shadowy bowel of the boat.
StudioCanal had already acquired another dramatisation of the same story – the two films were developed independently and coincidentally. The multimillion dollar version, THE MERCY, inevitably comes with less homely faces: in the title role we have Mr Darcy, who you can see in an early still, emoting like a school hamster at the end of term. Justin Salinger’s Donald, leading the tuppence ha’penny CROWHURST, looks like your lovely next door neighbour. He will make you believe in him, and then break your heart. THE MERCY offers more diverse and romantic location shoots – whereas CROWHURST barely strays from the Atlantic. Opening scenes and flashbacks showing the unready sailor’s hearth and home in CROWHURST were filmed in the house where the family really lived. A rule-breaking pit-stop at Argentina is depicted as a fever dream, and the film includes shots of the wreck of the actual trimaran where it now lies. For some scenes, cinematographer Milton Kam used the same type of handheld camera that the man himself used to document his own journey. The recreations are almost impossible to tell apart from the original footage. Yes, they’re whiskery and grainy seascapes, and the wide shots of the trimaran make it look like a runaway paper boat lost in a rain-swollen gutter, but that’s what makes it feel all the more real. Oh yes, and Nic Roeg executive produced CROWHURST – he had wanted to tell this story for a long time, but clearly felt that it was in good hands, with one of his biggest fans as the director and co-writer.
Following the premiere of CROWHURST at the Oldenburg film festival, producer Michael Riley told the Hollywood Reporter that he was proud to have been the first to commit Donald’s story to celluloid, describing it as a “physically and emotionally challenging shoot”. If you fancy giving the film a pop, and we strongly recommend that you do, then you might also want to get hold of Jerry Rothwell‘s excellent documentary DEEP WATER, so that you can appreciate the genius of CROWHURSTS’s casting director, and all the film-nerdy nods to sixties cinematography.