Round the world yachtsmen and women are hardy, courageous people – they need to be to stand the loneliness and dangers of navigating enormous seas and terrifying winds singlehandedly for months on end. So when Donald Crowhurst (Firth), at best a fair-weather amateur sailor, decided to compete in the Sunday Times Golden Globe race in 1968 many people thought he was foolhardy.
Donald had never sailed for long periods alone before and as the start date for the race got closer he realised his boat (which he had designed himself) wasn’t finished or kitted out securely. But with the British public, his wife Clare (Weisz) and sponsors all rooting for him he felt he couldn’t back out.
Having set sail the enormity of what he was actually undertaking hit home and with bits of his boat falling off or simply not working, as he approached the perils of Cape Horn he made a decision that would lead to tragedy.
Although director James Marsh regularly cuts back to what’s happening on dry land in England, with Weisz patiently waiting for news and Thewlis as Donald’s press agent ‘bigging up’ his achievement, most of the film is centred on Donald, his yacht and the wide open sea. Firth does a great job conveying Donald’s uncertainties, fears and increasing paranoia as the days alone stretch to months, his face by turns stoic and almost unbearably sad. There’s also a wonderful sense of period – with no sat nav or GPS the film feels truly analogue – and some of the ocean-going footage is beautiful.
But the film never really captures the sense of brave human endeavour required by Donald and his fellow sailors as they battle the waves and their own, internal demons. It’s all very worthy and solid but lacks a certain salt tang of excitement and adventure that would take it from being a workman-like movie to something really special.