“Deep Water,” Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s carefully researched and well-written docu, covers a 1968 sailing race around the world, focusing on amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, whose story contains more than enough drama to keep the tale on course. As it explores the limits of human endurance, the pic should suck even landlubbers into a whirlpool of gripping adventure, overblown ambitions and sheer human folly in its theatrical dates before the pic sets sail for video islands.
The project brings to mind the 2004 British mountain-climbing docu-drama “Touching the Void,” a bald-faced but very successful recreation of a true story, which was showered with documentary awards while grossing more than $4.5 million at the U.S. box office. (The two films have a producer, John Smithson, in common.) Here Osmond and Rothwell stick to traditional docu rules — they don’t attempt to recreate scenes with actors. Notably, this story has a much less upbeat ending than “Void.”
The filmmakers had a big advantage in being able to incorporate some startling material: the original tape recordings and 16mm films made by the solitary navigators while they spent more than 10 months alone at sea. In these intimate self-portraits, a great deal is revealed about the hoaxer Crowhurst and the mystic French sailor Bernard Moitessier, the two great eccentrics of the tale. A pity the latter is relegated to a supporting role, because his experience of finding his soul at sea would have made a compelling equal-time counterpoint to Crowhurst’s prosaic concerns as his dream unravels.
Tension and suspense build right from the start as narrator Tilda Swinton describes how the Sunday Times decided to sponsor the first non-stop, single-handed round-the-world sailing race in history, after Sir Francis Chichester set a one-stop record the year before. While psychologists speculate on what effect such an endeavor could have on the human mind, the world’s most experienced sailors gather in British seaports.
The dark horse is 36-year-old Crowhurst, a manufacturer of sailing equipment with a wife, four kids and major financial problems. Signing a devil’s bargain with a local sponsor to finish the race or bust, he cobbles together a gadget-filled trimaran and sets sail long after everyone else has departed. Even if he can’t win a Golden Globe as first man home, he still believes he has a shot at the cash prize for fastest voyage.
Within weeks, even before hitting the rough weather in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, his boat is leaking and falling to pieces. He realizes it would be suicide to continue, but financial ruin to turn back.
His solution — at once brilliant, bold and totally dishonest — is to break radio contact and bide his time off the coast of Argentina, waiting for his three remaining competitors to make their way around Cape Horn and New Zealand. He plans to join them on the home stretch as though he had made the same voyage.
This is just the first part of the film. Crowhurst’s mental deterioration into his personal heart of darkness, documented on the film he makes, is played against his wife Clare’s confidence in him as she waits with the children back home. Among the family members interviewed, Crowhurst’s son Simon helps suspensefully recount the story, while Moitessier’s wife Francoise describes her husband’s unstoppable wanderlust. These two men convey something about the sea’s grandeur and the way it grips the imagination, pushing them into very strange territory, indeed.
Tech work is top quality throughout, with a special nod to the music by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott (who together scored “The Road to Guantanamo”) and to production designer Jane Linz Roberts for her detailed reconstruction of Crowhurst’s ship cabin.