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Deep Water

United Kingdom 2007
Directed by
Louise Osmond / Jerry Rothwell
93 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
5 stars

Deep Water

Synopsis: In 1968 eight men set out from England in an attempt to be the first person to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world. Only one of them completed the race.

Deep Water is a stunning documentary, at once a high-tension adventure story, a superbly-constructed recreation of historical events and a moving account of one man’s journey to the heart of his personal darkness. It is about an odyssey but for all its mythical dimensions of man pitting himself against the elements and against Fate, it is a distinctively English one. When Donald Crowhurst, a 35 year old electronics engineer with limited sailing experience left England in his badly-made, under-prepared trimaran on October 31, 1968, he was wearing a pullover and tie and the worried expression of a bank clerk who couldn’t get his books to balance. Yes, there was something heroic in his aspiration to realize his dream but given that he knew that he was far from ready, there was even more, if not cowardice, then foolhardiness and self-deception in his ever setting out at all. Crowhurst’s story is not the inspirational underdog’s triumph so beloved of the sports film genre but rather a harrowing account of human folly and an individual driven beyond the pale of sanity. The similarity between Crowhurst’s final diary ruminations and those of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz are uncanny and directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell do a superb job of taking us to that same dark and lonely place.

Whilst the film is principally about Crowhurst, it also looks at the experience of two other of the original eight race participants: Robin Knox-Johnston, the only contestant to complete the race and who thus holds the distinction of being the first man to go around the world in a boat by himself without stopping and Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, described by his wife as a poet and philosopher, who after 10 months alone at sea could not face the prospect of returning to the baying crowd and turned his boat around and sailed off into the sunset. The makers use a mixture of archival footage, interviews with family members and newly-shot footage to bring us the fightening reality of what these men attempted and endured. Whilst Knox-Johnston epitomizes matter-of-fact-but-indefatigable English determination and Moitessier was carried away by the poetic purity of the voyage, Crowhurst, evidently chafing under the burden of personal and familial failure, was driven by a need to prove himself to the world.  This made him a ready victim, not only to his own hubris but the ruthless hunger of the British press looking for a made-to-order hero to pump their circulation.

If the film has any deficiency it is in explaining just how the woefully inexperienced Crowhurst became a contender, given that his fellow participants were seasoned yachtsmen with clearly superior vessels. Notwithstanding, the makers have had access to a compelling range of archival material including Crowhurst’s audio recordings, film diary and journals and these are used deftly to create a step-by-step account of his physical and spiritual journey. The effect is both gripping and devastating. So often when we read or hear of stories of human tragedy in the media we wonder what the real story was. The strength of Deep Water, over and above its formal achievement, is that it shows us the truth in a way that often only fiction, with its unlimited powers of imagination, can.




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