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MOVIE REVIEW

In way over his head

An amateur yachtsman faces almost certain death or financial ruin in the powerful documentary 'Deep Water.'

August 24, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Disturbing, unnerving and wire-to-wire involving, "Deep Water" is the story of a dream that got so wildly out of hand that it ensnared the dreamer in an intricate trap of his own devising.

Nominally a story centered on the participants in an especially daunting and arduous nautical race, this gripping British documentary takes us daringly close to a man who ended up over his head in ways he never imagined.

As directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell (and produced by the man who brought you "Touching the Void"), "Deep Water" joins a tale of stirring, hair-raising adventure with issues of life, death and morality presented in the starkest terms. Using all the tools at a filmmaker's disposal, this is one of those stories that couldn't possibly be invented, that has the jaw-dropping twists and reverses only reality can provide. If you want to know why documentaries are increasingly capturing audiences' imaginations, this is a good place to start.

"Deep Water" itself starts in 1967, when a man named Francis Chichester electrifies Britain by sailing alone around the world, taking nine months to go 33,000 miles, punctuated only by a stop in Australia for refitting.

Looking for the next challenge, the Sunday Times newspaper sponsors what is billed as the greatest endurance test of all time, a single-handed sail around the world with no stops allowed. Though no one knew if either the physical boat or the human psyche could survive such a journey, a pair of prizes were set: a Golden Globe to the first boat home and 5,000 pounds to the boat with the fastest time

Most of the 10 men who announce they will leave by the Oct. 31, 1968, deadline are top of the line, including Robin Knox-Johnson of Britain and France's premier sailor, Bernard Moitessier, whose wife says she could no more stop him from going than you can stop a bird from flying. And then there is Donald Crowhurst, an amateur yachtsman and father of four, owner of a floundering marine electronics business who yearned for bigger things.

"We are all human beings and we have dreams, and this voyage was Donald's," says Ron Winspear, Crowhurst's best friend at the time. Adds Crowhurst's son Simon, "He needed a challenge, to show who he was, and this, the greatest one possible, compelled him."

There were, however, difficulties from the start. Crowhurst was not really a world-class water man but rather "someone who messed about in boats, almost a weekend sailor." Because of difficulty getting sponsored, he was unable to adequately prepare for the voyage. And to get that sponsor, he signed a contract that meant that he would lose his house if he pulled out early in the race or before it began.

No one knew anything about that at the time, however, and, aided by an energetic press agent, the British media couldn't get enough of Crowhurst, "the dark horse of the sea" who practiced "derring-do on a shoestring."

The sea itself was less forgiving, however, and once Crowhurst began his journey, his lack of preparation time led to serious problems with his 41-foot trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, and the starkest possible choice. "If he went forward," a friend explains, "it was suicide. If he went back, he was ruined."

Period, end of story. Or was it? What happens next is the heart of "Deep Water," and it is a story told with several kinds of skill. Directors Osmond and Rothwell have made great use of various filmmaking techniques, including sharp on-screen graphics, vintage documentary footage, strong sound effects and score, a brief narration by Tilda Swinton as well as journal excerpts read by actors. The filmmakers also unearthed and employed Crowhurst's 16-millimeter films and tape recordings made on the journey, material that had not been seen for decades.

The heart of "Deep Water" is its empathetic and perceptive interviews with the people who knew Crowhurst best, including his wife and his son, as well as fellow competitor Knox-Johnson and Moitessier's wife, Francoise. These people have had decades to think about the story's potent events and have put that time to good use, giving interviews that are uniformly candid, articulate and insightful.

One theme that everyone returns to is what it is like to be out on the ocean by yourself for hundreds of days. "When you are alone, just you and the ocean, the whole of the universe is totally indifferent," says friend Ron Winspear. "The imagination is the danger. It's about isolation and the delicate mechanism of the mind." What that mechanism can do is what this powerful film is finally about.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"Deep Water." Rated PG for thematic elements, mild language and incidental smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.

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