Crowhurst movie review: the worse things that happen at sea

Crowhurst yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A little bit psychedelic, a little bit queasy, a little bit experimental, a lot existential, this is a jarring, visceral portrait of the around-the-world sailor in over his head.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

So this is the other film about Donald Crowhurst, the amateur sailor whose participation in a then-world-famous 1968–9 round-the-globe solo race didn’t pan out like he’d hoped it would. The UK branch of French distributor StudioCanal snapped up this tiny indie because it had its own Crowhurst film, the much bigger star-powered The Mercy, in the offing, turning the competition into a partner (sort of); Crowhurst has now been released in the UK — the sailor’s home country — mere weeks after The Mercy. But this isn’t like Deep Impact going up against Armageddon: Crowhurst is at most complementary to The Mercy. These are two very different films, and it’s absolutely fascinating to see how different filmmakers approach the exact same story.

Crowhurst is a very different film from The Mercy. It’s absolutely fascinating to see how different filmmakers approach the exact same story.

The Mercy is a glossy, prestige drama with awards aspirations (which are not unwarranted). Crowhurst — written (with Andy Briggs) and directed by Simon Rumley — isn’t so much an arthouse take as one more akin to the British equivalent of grindhouse: 70s horror, a little bit psychedelic, a little bit queasy, a little bit experimental, a lot existential. The film takes place almost entirely on Crowhurst’s trimaran boat, the Teignmouth Electron, at sea, though the tone is set by a scene on land, when Crowhurst (an electrifying Justin Salinger: Everest, Robot Overlords) hesitates in signing the contract with his business partner that puts him on the hook for more money than he could ever pay back, should he fail to complete the race. In the otherwise quiet room, a clock ticks, loud and aggressive, a pestering metronome of pressure.

“Earth calling Donald... No, wait, I’m Donald.”
“Earth calling Donald… No, wait, I’m Donald.”

At sea, the monotony of quiet, lonely routine — which Rumley presents with a kind of hushed dread all its own — soon gives way to eerie, almost stream-of-consciousness horror as the poorly constructed and unfinished Electron begins to fall apart in the middle of the ocean, and as Crowhurst’s mind begins to unravel with the impossible audacity of what he has attempted, and what he stands to lose. Recurring motifs of English patriotic songs sung by Crowhurst’s family — in his imagination, perhaps, or twisted memories of how they sung him off to sea — feel like irresistible self-bullying: Don’t you dare let the side down! Recurring nightmares of fish flapping around him in his bunk, gasping for air, dying, are like a funhouse distortion of his own struggle to right himself, to find a way out of this mess of his own making. The washed-out 70s-home-movie vibe of the film (not represented in the images here, or, weirdly, in any of the studio-supplied stills) renders Crowhurst’s descent into madness as something spied-upon and therefore true… even though much speculation is involved.

Crowhurst is a jarring, visceral experience… but not much more than that. It’s too intimate, perhaps, too inward-looking, to offer the larger context that a real story with historical import and modern relevance could demand. But then, we have The Mercy for that.

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