Documentary sails into truly spellbinding waters

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 20, 2007 1:40pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Another amazing true story gets an exciting documentary treatment in “Deep Water,” a spellbinding film about an around-the-world race gone bad.

The place is England, the year is 1968. As astronauts prepare for the moon, a group of sailors launch for another daunting journey: A London newspaper has announced a prize for the first person to sail around the world alone, without stopping.

Nine men take the challenge (a trip that should take nine or 10 months), but it doesn’t work out the way anybody expects. If you don’t know the story (I didn’t), I won’t spoil the utterly bizarre twists that await the participants, except to say that the whole thing unfolds with the breathlessness of a thriller.

The film focuses on three men in particular. One is Robin Knox-Johnston, an English yachtsman to the core, who appears to have taken all the right precautions for the journey.

Another is Bernard Moitessier, a dashing Frenchman who carries the whiff of Paul Gaugin about him. Moitessier leaves his wife and family behind, and slowly succumbs to the lure of the open sea and solitude.

And then there’s Donald Crowhurst, the movie’s eccentric center. Crowhurst looks like a character out of a Monty Python sketch, a failed electrician who didn’t have much seagoing experience when he decided to give the race a shot.

The film demonstrates the way that Crowhurst’s obligations to his sponsor (and to an overzealous publicist) forced him to leave port before his boat was properly ready — and prompted him to take drastic action when the ocean overmatched him.

This story is a good one, and directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell get flavorful interviews from many of the people involved. Narrator Tilda Swinton strikes just the right note. But what puts the movie into another zone is its trove of original material.

The race participants were supplied with 16 mm. movie cameras and tape recorders, and this material provides the most exciting parts of “Deep Water.” The footage shot by Moitessier and Crowhurst is by turns enchanting and haunting. There’s something eerie about a person alone on a small boat in the middle of the vast sea, and this first-person footage somehow captures that.

After a while you realize that the prize money has little to do with how the siren call of the ocean has changed these sailors. They all get caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

A scene from “Deep Water.”

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