In October 1968, a weekend sailor and engineer attempted to sail into the history books with one of the last great adventures of the twentieth century and the new Elizabethan age, the race to circumnavigate the globe single-handed and without any stops. That man was Donald Crowhurst and although he did ultimately enter the history books, it was not for the achievement that he had dreamt of. The dream had turned into a nightmare; faced with overwhelming odds and a boat that was not up to the task, Crowhurst dropped out of the race and began to transmit false reports on his progress before the lie became too big and he ultimately succumbed to insanity and eventual suicide.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because this 50th anniversary of the Sunday Times‘ Golden Globe Race has already seen a film released about Crowhurst, The Mercy, directed by James Marsh and starring Colin Firth, which I reviewed just last month. But now it is the turn of indie director Simon Rumley who, under the auspices (and, it could be argued, influence) of his executive producer, the seminal experimental filmmaker of the ’70s Nic Roeg, gives us Crowhurst starring Justin Salinger as the tormented sailor.
Compared to The Mercy with its big names, its heritage sheen and strong production values, the low budget Crowhurst is clearly the underdog in this challenge to tell the man’s story. But it’s an underdog who revels in its standing, and affords the viewer a much more intense, vivid and impressionistic telling of Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated journey than The Mercy ever dared, good though that film indeed was. This is the depiction of a man’s descent into madness, in harrowing, warts and all detail. It’s a hard watch at times and must especially be so for the Crowhurst family, so it’s with some surprise to learn that this film seems to have had more of their cooperation than the more sensitively handled The Mercy, with Rumley having gained access to the family home to shoot some scenes.
Simon Rumley is a director who Screen International describe as ‘one of the great British cinematic outsiders’. He first came to notice at the turn of the millennium with his loose series of films that became known as ‘the London trilogy’. These films – Strong Language, The Truth Game, and Club Le Monde – renowned for their low budget experimental nature and for their ability to capture the zeitgeist of twentysomething life in the late ’90s and the early ’00s. In the years that have followed, Rumley has continued to plot his course in the indie realms of British cinema, specialising in horror and the macabre with, most notably, 2010’s Red, White and Blue starring Noah Taylor as a psychotic former army interrogator.
Directing Crowhurst from a screenplay he co-wrote with Andy Briggs, Rumley remains true to form, presenting something that is more of a psychological horror film than a biopic. In telling Crowhurst’s story, he relishes the chance to explore not only the effects that several months solitude is likely to have on the fragile mechanism of the mind, but also the fear of personal and financial ruin that Crowhurst faced should he turn back and admit defeat. Together with his cinematographer Milton Kam, Rumley shoots like a 1960s film with all saturated colours and a mildly grainy quality. This is rather apt, as it makes Crowhurst feel not unlike someone’s feverish dream of an old movie that refuses to dislodge from their mind’s eye, and is therefore very much in keeping with his protagonist’s tormented thoughts and ultimate tragedy.
Rumley understands what Crowhurst faced a good deal more than Marsh’s film too. Here the solitary nature is palpably conveyed with long, wordless sequences of monotonous routine incorporating the duties on board the boat, such as bailing of water from faulty hatches, with the duties to keep Crowhurst himself going too; the preparation of simple tinned meals, with the little foot pump that squirts fresh water into the kettle, and the washing up that followed. All are beautifully edited by Agnieszka Liggett and possess an excellent sound design that makes it feel palpably unbearable and showcases Crowhurst’s naivety. This folly is also used to unconventional and blackly comic delight with black and white split-screen scenes that show a traditional ‘Mr Cholmondley-Warner’ style BBC announcer alongside each of Crowhurst’s rivals and their charted progress, with the cracks starting to show on their initially proud and optimistic faces of the sailors as he imparts the news of their defeat not only to the world, but seemingly to them too. This sense of a dream becoming a nightmare is redolent throughout, and conveyed brilliantly in the startling moments where Rumley has his cast turn to camera and break the fourth wall to sing the likes of Silent Night, Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country, the absurd patriotic implications weighing heavily upon the shoulders becoming increasingly apparent by the fractured nature of the non-professional singing voices of the cast, and by the way in which the recurring incidental appearance of such hymns and anthems become increasingly distorted and warped upon the soundtrack. When Crowhurst, in the depths of manic insanity, wraps himself up within a Union Jack flag like an anxious babbling infant with their precious security blanket, it says more about the nature of the man and his thwarted ambitions than the whole of The Mercy. This is not the Donald Crowhurst that Colin Firth could ever play – a film which almost out of respect seemed to avert much of Crowhurst’s fractured thoughts on ‘cosmic beings’ and the games between God and the devil to preserve his dignity – Salinger makes this version uniquely his own; a small man totally out of his depth against the mighty, endless oceans. His Munch-like screaming direct to the camera is as powerfully compelling as that of any victim in a horror movie. In the end, Crowhurst is a horror movie – the monster is the mind.
Ultimately Rumley rather boldly stretches his film like a piece of elastic, placing further unconventional and impressionistic methods upon it until this elastic nature, much like Crowhurst himself, can take no more and snaps. A heartfelt and intuitive production, if you prefer your films a little more obscure and experimental, then Crowhurst should definitely be your pick over The Mercy. But, to my mind, the best film about the man remains Deep Water, the 2006 documentary from Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell. Nevertheless, both of these fictional accounts are fitting tributes to a man who found it impossible to go forward and impossible to turn back and, as such, was a man who deserves our sympathy. After all, when faced with such a choice – what would you do?
CROWHURST IS OUT ON STUDIOCANAL DVD