Colin Firth is excellent as Donald Crowhurst, the slightly potty Devon eccentric who, in 1968, decided to enter the Sunday Times Around The World Yacht Race having never previously sailed beyond the Isle of Wight.
What’s more, he was going to do it in his own boat, constructed with much of his own money and that of a gruff local second hand car dealer (Ken Stott).
Rachel Weisz has a less spectacular time as Mrs Crowhurst, staying at home with the kids and basically answering the phone with a dread on her pretty face every now and then.
It starts out as a gently nostalgic Ealing comedy about the little man taking on the world in his leaky invention, charmingly recreating 1968 Britain with loving period detail – 3 quid to fill her up with petrol, sponsorship deals with OXO, Lord’s Navy Rum and Crosse & Blackwell tinned soup. David Thewlis is rather good, too, as the blunt press agent hired to create some publicity for his hardy fool of a client.
As the ship sets sail, we feel for Crowhurst and his wife, who both sense the danger of the mission, especially as the boat’s far from sea-worthy. But they both put a brave face on, behind which fears of failure twitch ominously.
When Firth is alone at sea is when the film takes on a different hue, one of existential despair and panic and the actor does some really strong work here, wrestling with his conscience and his mortality against the vastness of the ocean.
The remarkable yet unknowable story of Crowhurst has been told before – in the excellent doc Deep Water – and will be told again soon in another film, Crowhurst, by the more experimental film maker Simon Rumley. So I won’t ruin the later details of what happens as the race that gripped the nation progresses through the waves.
But here, James Marsh, a gifted if slightly cold director with a background in creative documentary, is tough on his protagonist and tough on the viewer. Marsh previously made the Oscar-winning Man on Wire and Eddie Redmyane in the Stephen Hawking story Theory of Everything, so the superhuman exploits of ordinary men and their flirtations with hubris fascinate him. Crowhurst’s story is a bit different and hard to fathom and, ultimately, the film drifts to a conclusion, leaving us puzzled rather than satisfied, pondering the infinite, questioning our belonging and loneliness, yet grimly hanging on for an explanation.