Good news! Donald Crowhurst (Justin Salinger) has just received the word over his radio telephone that he has won the 1968-9 non-stop, around the world yachting contest as he will by far have the best time when he arrives back in Britain. But is that good news? For his family and sponsors, a resounding affirmative, yet for Donald, the answer is a thudding no because he had no intention of winning, and as he hangs up the phone he breaks down in tears: this was the last thing he wanted to hear. What can he possibly do now? For he hasn't gone around the world in record time at all, and this weekend sailor is a hopeless fraud who has landed himself in an impossible situation...
There were two Donald Crowhurst films released within months of each other, and this little item was not the one that garnered the recognition its rival did, as The Mercy had a couple of big stars in Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz to promote it, while there was no star power here whatsoever. The cast were certainly not inexperienced, but none had tasted stardom, yet to add insult to injury the alternate, more expensive take on the true-life tragedy ended up flopping at the box office in spite of the amount of publicity it worked up in the media. Could it be the public were uninterested in the story after all these years of it regularly revived as a fascinating stranger than fiction account?
It might have been down to the many versions of Crowhurst's experiences reaching a saturation point, as there had been a very successful documentary from just over a decade before that had been widely seen on television, called Deep Water, which was probably about as good a telling of the moving yarn available. That was going against The Mercy and this both, and the director Simon Rumley's variation on events was even less likely to find an audience when it didn't have the funds available to give it a push, and doubly troublesome, it was in effect an experimental film that riffed on aspects of Crowhurst and his place in British society rather than a straightforward telling.
However, if that sounded intriguing to you, then you would be well advised to take a look at Crowhurst in all its potentially wayward presentation. You couldn't imagine the real man's family would be too pleased with it, especially when Rumley had made his name, such as it was, with low budget psychological horrors, yet this was a legitimately strange approach to facts that were already well-worn by the point of its release. This was down to the actual end of the tale being shrouded in mystery, as nobody can be wholly certain of what happened to the hapless sailor, merely that he was in over his head and appeared to have suffered a breakdown thanks to his guilt and terror he would be found out, losing his house and even his family of wife Clare (Amy Loughton) and four young children in the process.
The subject's background is sketched in with economy but some insight; if something like Fawlty Towers skewered middle class British angst through the comedy of embarrassment to great acclaim, that at least had the benefit of humour. Crowhurst, a real man in a situation that could have been mined for jokes, summed up such a horror of being found out, everyone realising you were a sham who had no business trying to make their way in the world, that its truth made the events utterly compelling in what many would secretly believe "there but for the grace of God go I" no matter what class you were. Details were brought up, such as the man's navigation aid that was going down like a cup of cold sick with its prospective buyers, which was genuinely useful and was popularised after his disappearance, but Rumley was most interested in the disintegration of the mind, which Salinger carried in scenes where he was often the only actor present. You could tell there wasn't much money involved in this, but its piercing tap into a universal impostor syndrome was sufficiently disquieting. Music by Richard Chester.