Crowhurst (2017)

Crowhurst first published by Sight & Sound, May 2018

Review: It begins near its end, with Donald Crowhurst (Justin Salinger) being informed by radio that he has just won the Golden Globe Trophy. This ought to be great news, but the look of grave horror on the mariner’s face is recognisable as the very same crestfallen expression that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson displayed the morning they learnt that they had been all too successful in persuading a majority of the British people to vote for Brexit. 

Simon Rumley‘s Crowhurst is based on the true story of an amateur sailor who, despite his inexperience, entered a competition to be either the first or at least the fastest to complete a non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe. Realising early that his rush-job trimaran was not fit to leave the Atlantic, but under immense financial pressure to finish the race, Crowhurst decided to falsify his coordinates while merely loitering alone off the South American coast, eventually to rejoin his competitors when they returned and to come in last without losing honour or his home – but his plans came unstuck when his rivals all dropped out, leaving him the default winner. Distraught with solitude and shame, Crowhurst vanished, presumed drowned in an act of suicide, leaving behind his vessel and a logbook filled with his increasingly unhinged thoughts. 

Crowhurst was dubbed ‘the great British underdog’ by the press – a label which might equally be applied to Rumley’s film. For it too found itself racing James Marsh’s bigger-budgeted, starrier-casted The Mercy (2018) to tell Crowhurst’s story. Yet where Marsh’s film is a stuffily conventional biopic, Rumley‘s spikier, more challenging work tracks the fragmentation of Crowhurst’s storm-tossed mind with a gamut of in-camera effects: disorienting montages, split screens, colour filters. If Crowhurst opens with the sound of a ticking clock, and at first calibrates its mannered editing precisely to that strict chronological pulse, by the end the film’s careful rhythm has abandoned ship altogether, leaving in its place something altogether more spasmodic and heaving to mark Crowhurst’s own dislocation from time. It all plays as a glorious homage to the stylings and sensibilities of Nicholas Roeg, who had once intended to make his own version of Crowhurst’s maritime misadventure (and who serves here as executive producer).

Crowhurst may depict events unfolding in the late Sixties – and it may have been shot in 2015, long before the EU referendum – yet viewed now, Rumley‘s film is a resonant allegory for Brexit Britain. After all, Crowhurst too opts for self-imposed isolation. Sailing off under the Red Ensign in which later he will wrap himself (“Can’t sail around the world without a bloody Union Jack!”) and embodying a plucky if outmoded notion of English supremacy over the waves, all to the accompaniment of jingoistic anthems (Jerusalem, Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen) that are playing only in his delirious, fancy-filled head, he gets caught in both a leaky boat and a lie of his own making. Crowhurst is a timely tragic myth not just of English overreaching, but also of hubris, madness and catastrophe whose consequences are left for others.

Synopsis: 1968, England. With his invention the Navicator proving unprofitable, Donald Crowhurst decides that his best hope of making some money and promoting his business is to enter The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a competition (with cash prize) to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly without any stops. Despite the obvious misgivings of both his wife Clare and his lawyer, Crowhurst uses his business and home as collateral in a financing deal with caravan entrepreneur Stanley Best. Journalist Rodney Hallworth helps Crowhurst secure more funding from the community of Teignmouth. Experimental trimaran the Teignmouth Electron is built in a rush so that Crowhurst can set off on the competition’s closing date, 31 October.  

Crowhurst quickly realises that neither his vessel (which is constantly taking in water) nor he will survive the Roaring Forties – but if he turns back or pulls in, he will lose everything. So he decides to drift in the Atlantic while falsifying his coordinates to suggest that he is continuing on; if he rejoins the others when they round the Horn, nobody will scrutinise his records so long as he comes in last. Crowhurst discontinues all radio communications (including with Clare and his children). As all the other competitors pull out or are disqualified, Crowhurst learns that he has won by default. Driven mad by his isolation and checkmated by his own deceit, he vanishes from his boat forever.

© Anton Bitel