Colin Firth might not at first strike you as the sort of fellow to take the part of a doughty sailor. More your rugged indoor type, Mister Darcy is about as blokey as he gets – but that is just the point in this unusual, haunting film. After Sir Francis Chichester became the first man to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe in 1968, a cash prize was offered by the Sunday Times of London for whoever could emulate the feat, but without calling in at any port en route.
Donald Crowhurst (Firth), a weekend yachtsman living an unnoticed life with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and two young sons in the picturesque fishing town of Teignmouth, decided to enter the race with his purpose-built trimaran. What happened to Crowhurst is a true story, but it is unexpectedly confronting – almost not credible – for the simple fact that, on the screen, characters such as Crowhurst are meant to be capable of overcoming any setback in their quest for glory. Making a movie about a hero who does not quite fit the mould is simply not pukka. Any hint of failure is strictly taboo in the cinema, which is a pity, for Crowhurst and his ilk are so identifiable. The rampant paradigm that insists ‘you can do anything’, with a big orchestral soundtrack backing you, is all well and good for the minority who can, but for most of us some things need to be consigned to the too hard basket. There is no shame in that, nor is it defeatist to admit it. Crowhurst, egged on by a salivating media, comes to the realisation that he has bitten off more than he can chew while alone in the Atlantic on his leaky, shambolic boat. How he reacts is heart-breaking in its funny/sad humanity. Trapped in his own web of deception, the moment finally arrives when he understands with blinding clarity what he must do – he refers to this moment of submission to truth as ‘the mercy.’ And Firth is perfect.