(2018) Biographical Drama (Screen Media) Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Adrian Schiller, Andrew Buchan, Jonathan Bailey, Anna Madeley, Ken Stott, Tim Downie, Genevieve Gaunt, Sebastian Armesto, Martin Marquez, Finn Elliot, Kerry Godliman, Kit Connor, Eleanor Stagg, Simon Chandler, Greg Hicks, Zara Prassiinot. Directed by James Marsh
The sea is an unforgiving mistress. She tolerates no mistakes, no miscalculations, no regret. When you are alone at sea, there is no one more alone in the world, to paraphrase Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to circumnavigate the globe by himself with only one stop (in Australia).
Now, at a large boating show in England, Chichester (McBurney) is on hand to announce a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times; a race around the world by boat with no stops. In 1968, it was a grueling, nearly impossible feat. There was no resupplying your ship – you had to make due with what you brought with you. There was no stopping to make repairs; if anything broke down, it was up to you to fix it. There was no support system other than the voices you heard on the radio. You were well and truly alone.
To nautical inventor and weekend sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) this sounded like just the challenge he needed. The creator of a pre-GPS electronic locator device known as the Navicat, he is at the boat show where Chichester makes his announcement and the adventure takes hold of his imagination. While among friends, he blithely announces that he has registered for the race which is news to his wife Clare (Weisz). She’s more than a little surprised; the family has a comfortable middle class existence in the coastal town of Teignmouth. They have three children who absolutely worship Daddy. Why on earth would he want to risk his life to be away from his loving family for months?
But Donald is determined to see this through. He is designing a trimaran, a catamaran with an extra float to give it more buoyancy and speed. Donald is certain with the safety devices of his own invention that he can win the race. However, delays in building the boat (many of them due to adding the new technology) create frustration for Crowhurst and his main investor, Stanley Best (Stott), an RV salesman (called caravans in England) and Crowhurst’s publicist Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis).
Hallworth has been busy creating an image of Crowhurst as a plucky English hero, a weekend sailor braving the dangerous waters of the Southern Oceans which frightened even Chichester. He has become a media darling but the deadline for setting sail is fast approaching and despite Crowhurst’s notoriety and plethora of sponsorships, he can’t speed up the process of building the boat.
So he launches on the very last day possible and it becomes very clear that the boat, named the Teignmouth Electron after his marine electronics business, is not nearly ready – it’s barely even seaworthy – and his gumption to make repairs at sea prove to be woefully optimistic. As he approaches the tip of South America where Cape Horn awaits to deliver him into the South Pacific, he realizes that he’ll never survive the journey. If he returns however he will forfeit his business, his home and nearly everything he has, plunging his family into destitution. He is left with an impossible choice…until he comes up with a creative solution.
This is based on a true story, one which is fairly well-known in sailing circles as well as in Great Britain where Crowhurst remains fairly well-known. To most Americans however, the details of the story will be unfamiliar so there is a good deal I’m leaving out. What I don’t have to avoid talking about is the performances of three of the best actors of their generation in England. Firth and Weisz, both Oscar winners, and Thewlis who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, all deliver outstanding performances. Thewlis, as the brash ex-crime reporter who is bound and determined to make Crowhurst a household name (and succeeds all too well) is perhaps the most noticeable of the three.
Both Weisz and Firth understate their performances quite a bit, especially Weisz who is mainly forced to keep a stiff upper lip in public but privately is terrified that she’ll never see her husband alive again. She shows some backbone, addressing the media horde camped at her front door near the end of the film and it’s an incandescent scene and shows just how powerful an actress Weisz truly is.
But for me, the star is Firth. He plays a good man, a fine husband and devoted father who talks himself into a situation that leaves him clearly over his head. We watch as he makes decisions that seem logical at the time but that lead him deeper down a path of no return, then watch as alone at sea those decisions not only come back to haunt him but prey upon his mind like voracious tigers. It’s a chilling performance, one of Firth’s best which is saying something.
Another thing; the sound effects are absolutely amazing, from the creaking of the boat, the groaning of the metal, the waves smashing into the hull…all amplified and all making the experience so much more realistic. You get a sense of why Crowhurst’s ordeal having to listen to that non-stop for months. That alone makes this worth seeing in a theater, if it plays anywhere near you.
Marsh stumbles a little when it comes to building the dramatic tension. Although you get a sense of the wheels turning and forcing Crowhurst down a path that will lead him to face impossible choices, when it finally comes to the denouement it almost feels anti-climactic.
This is a movie that if it had been picked up by a major we would be hearing about for the performances of the three leads, possibly with Oscar ramifications. Even though it is unlikely to get distribution in most places, this is a truly fine film that deserves to be seen. Keep an eye out for it at your local art house or on your favorite streaming service. You won’t be sorry.
REASONS TO GO: The sound effects really enhance the story nicely. It’s a compelling story, compellingly acted by a terrific cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic tension isn’t as great as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man playing the mayor of Teignmouth is the son of the man who was actually mayor at the time of Crowhurst’s voyage; the son has himself been elected mayor of Teignmouth twice.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All is Lost
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10