Sailing around the world seems like a near-impossible task, but imagine doing it yourself, unaided. Now imagine doing it yourself without the aid of modern technology. That is exactly what several intrepid souls attempted as part of the Golden Globe race in 1968, and no entrant would have as intriguing a story as a result than Donald Crowhurst, the subject of the film Crowhurst from British director Simon Rumley.
Crowhurst follows the small businessman Donald Crowhurst, inventor of the "Navicator", and amateur sailor as he tries to revive his failing business by taking part in the Golden Globe round the world race. However, despite months of preparation, Donald quickly finds himself literally and figuratively out of his depth and descending into madness. This leads him to make a decision that ultimately degrades is mental state further as he lives with the guilt of his actions.
Much of Crowhurst is focused on the eponymous sailor, which requires a convincing and believable performance, which is exactly what lead actor Justin Salinger provides. There is a subtlety to his portrayal of Crowhurst right from the off that helps set the tone for the characters journey down the rabbit hole of madness. Even just small details in his face reveal lingering self-doubt beneath a confident exterior. However, Salinger really comes into his own as the film progresses, managing to convey a complex mess of emotions especially as he rapidly unravels.
The visual choices in the film are often reminiscent of those you might see in a horror film, which makes Crowhurst’s insanity even more believable. The small details (it’s hard to explain, but the baked beans in particular) become increasingly distressing as the film goes on. This is combined with back-and-forth cuts between past and present moments in Crowhurst’s life, happy movements juxtaposed with madness, all intersected by news reports from the ongoing progress of the race. It’s mesmerising and disturbing in equal measure. That said, perhaps the most effective element is the alternating cuts of patriotic English songs including Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory which take on really dark connotations in this context. It really is very effective.
Crowhurst could easily have been a story vilifying the main character, or just as equally glamourizing his disgrace. However, Rumley has chosen a more level path choosing to focus on the degradation of Crowhurst’s mental state without judgement, which in itself is devastatingly effective.
While I have yet to see The Mercy, the other film made about Donald Crowhurst starring Colin Firth, I find it hard to believe that another film could capture this story in such detail, with such a fair focus. Crowhurst is a fascinating look at human nature and the lengths one man would go to in order to succeed, and the guilt and mental anguish that decision can cause, making for a stunning, gripping but ultimately difficult watch.