“With shroud, and mast, and pennon fair”.


It’s 1968. Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle“; “Magic in the Moonlight“), an amateur sailor and entrepreneur based in Teignmouth, Devon, is inspired by listening to single-handed round-the-world yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester and does a a crazy thing. He puts his business, his family’s house and his own life on the line by entering the Sunday Times single-handed round-the-world yacht race. It’s not even as if he has a boat built yet! 

Carefree days on the river in glorious Devon. (Source: Blueprint Pictures/BBC Films)

Lending him the money, under onerous terms, are local businessman Mr Best (Ken Stott, “The Hobbit“) and local newspaper editor Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis, “Wonder Woman“, “The Theory of Everything“). With the race deadline upon him, Crowhurst is pressed into sailing away from his beloved wife Clare (Rachel Weisz, “Denial“, “The Lobster“) and young family in a trimaran that is well below par. 

But what happens next is so ludicrous that it makes a mockery of whoever wrote this ridiculous work of fiction.  Ah… but wait a minute… it’s a true story!

Having a close shave or two. Colin Firth as the hapless mariner Donald Crowhurst. (Source: Blueprint Pictures/BBC Films)

It is in fact such an astonishing story that this is a film that is easy to spoil in a review, a fact that seems to have passed many newspaper reviewers by (Arrrggghhh!!).  So I will leave much comment to a “spoiler section” that follows the trailer (which is also best avoided).  This is honestly a film worth seeing cold.

What can I say that is spoiler-free then? 

Firth and Weisz make a well-matched couple, and the rest of the cast is peppered with well-known faces from British film and (particularly) TV:  Andrew Buchan and Jonathan Bailey (from “Broadchurch”); Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”, “Out Kind of Traitor“);  Adrian Schiller (“Victoria”; “Beauty and the Beast“).

A worrying few months. Rachel Weisz as the wife carrying a heavy burden. (Source: Blueprint Pictures/BBC Films)

The first part of the film is well executed and excellent value for older viewers. 60’s Devon is warm, bucolic and nostalgic. In fact, the film beautifully creates the late 60’s of my childhood, from the boxy hardwood furniture of the Crowhurst’s house to the Meccano set opened at Christmas time. 

Once afloat though, the film is less successful at getting its sea-legs. The story is riveting, but quite a number of the scenes raise more questions than they answer. As stress takes hold it is perhaps not surprising that there are a few fantastical flights of movie fancy. But some specific elements in Scott Burns’ script don’t quite gel: a brass clock overboard is a case in point. What? Why?

And it seems to be light on the fallout from the race:  there is a weighty scene in the trailer between Best and Hallworth that (unless I dozed off!) I don’t think appeared in the final cut, and I think was needed. 

All in all, I was left feeling mildly dissatisfied:  a potentially good film by “Theory of Everything” director James Marsh that rather goes off the rails in the final stretch. 

Camerawork from Eric Gautier to give the sturdiest stomach pause. (Source: Blueprint Pictures/BBC Films)

This was a time where morality and honour were often rigidly adhered to – British “stiff upper lip” and all that – and seemed to carry a lot more weight than they do today.  So some of the decisions in the film might mystify younger viewers.  But for the packed older audience in my showing (Cineworld:  this needs to be put on in a bigger screen!) then it was a gripping, stressful, but far from flawless watch.  

I’d also like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the film’s composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who shockingly died last week at the ridiculously young age of 48.  His strange and atmospheric music for films including “The Theory of Everything“, “Sicario” and (particularly) “Arrival” set him on the path to be a film composing great of the future. Like James Horner, another awful and untimely loss to the film music industry.

Fad Rating:  FFF.

Spoiler Section:  don’t read this unless you have seen the film!

I have a real bone to pick with a number of newspaper film critics, notably Kevin Maher of The Times who waited until word EIGHTEEN of his review of this film before dropping a massive spoiler that I unfortunately read before seeing the film. “…The amateur sailor who died while competing in, and cheating at, the 1968/69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race“:  could you add a more spoilerish statement to start a review?  Very annoying!  And he’s not alone. It’s as if, just because there was a strong journalistic angle to the story, then all of the newspaper critics *ASSUME* that everyone is familiar with this story that’s now 50 years old!

The film left me with one over-riding emotion…. ANGER!

I can *just about* understand how this man, forced into a financial corner, might swallow his honour and pragmatically decide to execute the falsehood of a quick trip around the Atlantic:  limp back into port in nth place; a “loser”, yes, but a loser with a house and business still.  But HOW any husband and father could leave his lovely family NOT ONLY alone BUT ALSO to face all the financial brouhaha he’s created for them all?  It just made my blood boil.  The closing notice – that Robin Knox-Johnston gave his £5,000 prize fund to the widow – is amazing and very noble:  this was a lot of money in those days.

You complete bastard!! Scanning the horizon in vain for his return. Rachel Weisz and young actors Kit Connor, Finn Elliot and Eleanor Stagg. (Source: Blueprint Pictures/BBC Films)

Ultimately, the film implies – through the horses; the seaweed; the solder – that the stress, loneliness or perhaps a range of other factors sent the wretched soul completely round the twist. It is then perhaps at heart not a tale about sailing derring-do at all, but a salutary tale of the dangers of mental illness: something that could affect anyone, anywhere under the right circumstances; an illness that sends all logic and common sense out of the porthole. In a parallel with real life I guess,  Crowhurst could perhaps have been saved if his attempts at a one-to-one conversation with his wife had gone through.  Sometimes it is communication that is the answer.  So sad.

There is a really interesting Guardian article on the true life story, and the ongoing tragedy that continues to befall Clare, that is well worth a read.

It certainly makes for a sombre end to the film, and I know by experience (sorry Sarah!) that taking someone along who has lost their husband is not EXACTLY the Valentines Day treat that perhaps it was intended to be!  This is most definitely a “Father Ted” film!