In 1997, we had Dante’s Peak and Volcano share their volcanic eruption plot. In 1998, we had Armageddon and Deep Impact share in their asteroid-heading-to-earth set-up. In 2018, we have The Mercy and Crowhurst, based on the same true story of Donald Crowhurst, the underdog sailor from Teignmouth in Devon. Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst has a smaller budget and a primarily unknown cast, except Justin Salinger (Everest, Doctor Who) who plays the title role. Crowhurst is a dark exploration of a broken man and a dated expectation of what it means to be British. A tragic tale, Crowhurst takes on identity and reveals the greed in others as they feed off the foolishness of a single man.
Unlike The Mercy, there is an assumption that you know the story of Donald Crowhurst (Justin Salinger). In the opening moments, Crowhurst’s agent (Christopher Hale) tells him how he has won the race. Shortly after this point, we know that Donald Crowhurst presumably took his own life, knowing that he could not escape the lies about his journey that he had been spinning for months prior. The film rewinds to his struggling invention business, and how the solution to all his woes would be by entering the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. He would be expected to sail around the world and, if he managed to gain the fastest time, he would also take home £5000 (an enormous sum in 1968). The co-operation of Stanley Best (Glyn Dilley), and the signed sponsorship that held to ransom Crowhurst’s home and business, bookends the film. This financial “support” is also what held him at sea and forced Crowhurst to make decisions he never thought he would have to consider.
In The Mercy, Colin Firth’s Crowhurst was a dreamer. Salinger plays the part as considerably weaker. In Crowhurst, he is played as a gullible chancer and those who take advantage of him – Stanley Best and his agent Rodney – do so because he is naive to the circumstance that surrounds the entire venture. When Best tells Crowhurst that “you seem very confident”, we see a man desperate for money – not a man confident about his potential in the race. Director Simon Rumley feeds in the film a textured landscape. The tension of a clicking clock and bubbling water are cut sharply into the story. Time continues on, whether Donald Crowhurst is ready for it or not, he will eventually sail out to sea as his contract has him – and his family – on the line.You can feel the deep sense of regret in Donald’s loving wife, sensitively played by Amy Loughton, in the brief moments of tender support she gives her husband. She can see he needs this but the earth-shattering consequences are too tough to bear. When she holds him and he sobs, his true fear is revealed. Rumley also edits a running commentary of the other sailors of the race into the film. John Ridgeway, who only found out after collecting his mail in Madeira, that collecting mail at all was against the rules. Bernard Moitessier, an experienced sailor, managed most of the race but decided to not return to England and continued around the world for a few more months before settling on Tahiti. Every story reaffirms how difficult, physically and mentally, the challenge was – but we still cut back to Crowhurst, on his deteriorating ship and his plan to return as a loser.
The biggest difference between The Mercy and Crowhurst is the openly critical approach to Britishness. Crowhurst, whether draping Donald in a Union Jack or portraying family and friends of Crowhurst passionately singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ or ‘Jerusalem‘, only reminds us what patriotism, and English stoicism, can unexpectedly create. There are moments of peace as Donald brushes his teeth, eats his beans or mushrooms and quietly settles down at night. But the brass instruments, shiny and bold, are akin to a bully pushing you to go that one step further. When Crowhurst states, on his own, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean “to my queen, my country and my family – without you I’m nothing”, we are acutely aware of how one-sided his relationship to patriotism is.
Like the water falling through the plug hole, we witness the hope and optimism bleed from Donald Crowhurst. Rather than an open-ended connection to men who dream a little too big, Crowhurst is about staunchly proud British men who believe that the underdog should win because he is passionate and confident. That by merely believing in oneself is enough. Clearly it is not. Crowhurst is a reality, distorted by pride and a lack of humility, and will be a difficult experience to shake off in the cold light of day.
Crowhurst is out on DVD and Digital Download from 16 July 2018