In 1968, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst competed in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race with a cash prize of £5,000. Crowhurst was ill-equipped to the tackle the mammoth task ahead of him – many safety devices on his boat were never completed due to time and budget – but having staked his business on it, he persisted.
“Well, if there had been a guarantee of success, there would have been no point, no story,” actor Rachel Weisz points out when FilmInk sits down to talk to her and co-star Colin Firth.
Firth and Weisz play Donald and Clare Crowhurst in the new film, The Mercy from The Theory of Everything director James Marsh. The film follows Crowhurst’s foolhardy mission, while his wife and three children waited pensively back at home.
“It was an extraordinary thing to do for an ordinary man,” Weisz continues. “I don’t think he was ordinary, I think he was a bit of a genius and a dreamer. He was a dad and a husband, and he dared to do something extraordinary, and it didn’t work out. That’s very human.”
Against other more experienced competitors, including Robin Knox-Johnston, who would actually be the first man to complete the circumnavigation, Crowhurst began to fall further back with each day. Deciding that he couldn’t continue and fearing financial ruin back at home, Crowhurst, who never even left the Atlantic, began to falsify his position reports. On the return leg of the race, he would re-join; a cheater perhaps, but hopefully saving face.
Sadly, he would never make it home.
When Firth talks about Crowhurst, he seems fiercely protective of the man and philosophical about how history views him. The actor argues that in other circumstances, and with a different outcome, Crowhurst would have been championed as a hero.
“All these stories of improbable exploits probably start similarly,” Firth says. “They are against the odds, you are risking everything, you’re going to be leaving someone at home. You probably don’t have all the equipment you need! Nothing is ever perfect and when it succeeds, the whole thing is mythologised as heroism… We interpret every single decision in the light of the outcome.”
Facing such insurmountable odds, financial ruin and leaving behind a wife and three children begs the question as to whether Crowhurst’s actions could be considered at least somewhat ‘silly.’ Firth’s response is polite, but he makes his feelings known.
Well, if he made it round the world, won a prize, and become a rich man, we wouldn’t say it was silly at all,” he sighs. “This is what I mean. Of course, there’s recklessness there, but nothing is achieved without it.”
As well as following Crowhurst’s ill-fated voyage, The Mercy essays his wife having to cope with public scrutiny back at home. In today’s society, with a whole slate of ways to pick apart celebrities for the most trivial of things, we expect that Crowhurst would have been raked across the coals. Even back then, though, the tide turned against him.
“He became, as famous people often do, a vessel for people’s fears and anger and dreams. You get used,” Weisz says candidly. “And I think Clare completely and understandably resented that. To her, he was a real man. He was a father and a husband. He wasn’t just a trope.”
Firth adds, “I’ve always struggled with this, ‘Well, it’s your own fault because…’ It depends. If you cross the street, you don’t look properly, and you get killed, it may be your fault. You should have looked, but it’s not a capital offence to be negligent.”
With the majority of Firth’s scenes taking place at sea, the actor could be found filming three miles off the coast of southern England, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Did he struggle to get his sea legs?
“I wish I could tell you stories of peril on the high seas, but it wasn’t that sort of tough,” Firth laughs. “The boat had limitations where we couldn’t be above a certain number of knots, or more than three miles from land. There were days when we couldn’t go out at all, and we had to find other things to shoot. So, it was relentlessly inconvenient. But it really wasn’t much worse than that.”
The tale of Crowhurst is perhaps not as well known outside of its British backdrop, which might suggest the idea of the stiff upper lip in the jaws of death might not translate as well with international audiences. However, Weisz, as the interview wraps up, is keen to point out otherwise.
“For me, the reason why people, perhaps mainly in Britain, have been so fascinated by the story is because there is something about the story that so universally human,” she says. “I have never tried to set sail around the world in a boat, but the frailty and the humanism in the mistakes that he makes, I see that as universal. Why do we like those kinds of tales? Because they reflect our humanness. Here’s a man who’s a lot less than perfect but means well. He’s trying to reach for great heights, but you see tumbling effect of how the story folds in on itself. There’s something very universal in that. I identify with that. I have told little tales that have got me boxed in with much lower stakes. I have huge empathy for him.”
The Mercy is in cinemas March 8, 2018