I knew very little about Donald Crowhurst walking into The Mercy, and preserving that element of surprise might be the way to get the most out of James Marsh’s true-life drama. A casual Google will quickly throw up some of the finer details of Crowhurst’s story – so if Colin Firth’s latest is on your radar and you’re unfamiliar with what transpired then you may want to keep it that way. Of course, we’d dearly like you to stick around for this review, so bear with us while we navigate around a few spoilers of historical record.
We first meet Firth’s Crowhurst as he’s desperately trying to sell his nautical navigation device the Navicator. Punters won’t bite, and there’s a sense that his business is failing. Crowhurst himself is an amateur weekend sailor and, inspired by Francis Chichester’s (Simon McBurney) around the world journey, he decides to enter the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in a bid to claim the prize money and turn his fortunes around.
With financial aid from local businessman Stan Best (Ken Stott), publicity from tabloid hack-turned-PR maestro Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), and emotional support from wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and his children, Crowhurst sets sail in hastily-assembled trimaran the Teignmouth Electron. However, it soon becomes clear that he’s out of his depth and has little chance of navigating the seas unscathed. Faced with financial ruin if he returns home, Crowhurst finds himself stranded in the Atlantic and falsifying his logbooks, hoping to join the racers on the return leg and sail home in last place. Yes, Crowhurst was making ‘fake news’ long before that other Donald started tweeting about it.
What’s great about The Mercy is how it manages to surprise, both in the story it’s telling and how Marsh gradually shifts the tone. Crowhurst is initially painted as a dreamer, a plucky underdog who’ll conquer insurmountable odds to circumnavigate the globe. “If I can do it so can the bloke who stares at the horizon,” he says at one point. It’s all a bit twee and snoozy, but Marsh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are cleverly sewing seeds of doubt. Crowhurst suspects he’s unprepared for what’s ahead, and once he’s out at sea the film pushes into darker more psychologically complex territory.
Stripping away the bluster and self-aggrandising, Crowhurst is alone, isolated and battling with his leaky vessel. It should be said that Firth gives an absolutely brilliant performance here. On land his Crowhurst is a mix of charm, idealism and delusion; at sea he’s frightened, alone and mentally unraveling. Despite his nautical deception, there’s never a moment when you lose empathy for him.
Ironically, the film itself is more comfortable in the vast expanse of the ocean than it is on dry land. Crowhurst’s plight is the most compelling aspect, yet Marsh is frequently cutting back to a concerned Weisz (who makes the most out of a very slight role) and Thewlis’s press officer trying to conjure up headlines for Sunday Times editor Ronald Hall (Mark Gatiss). All of this never quite clicks, however there’s still much to admire here.
The Mercy reminded me a lot of J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost and Marsh’s earlier film, the extraordinary documentary Man On Wire. The former for its situation, a man against Mother Nature scrambling to patch up his battered boat, and the latter for resurfacing a fascinating piece of history about a man with grand ambition. Crowhurst and Twin Towers high-wire artist Philippe Petit are two very different people, but in both cases Marsh is eager to get behind the showmanship and ask a simple question: why did they do it?
The Mercy is in UK cinemas from Friday.