The Mercy, 2018.
Directed by James Marsh.
Starring Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Mark Gatiss, Andrew Buchan, and Ken Stott.
In 1968, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst decided to compete in the Golden Globe Round The World Yacht Race, the ultimate non-stop sailing challenge at the time. The race made a household name of Robin Knox-Johnston at the time, but Crowhurst’s story remained an unsolved mystery for years. Based on a true story.
After the glittering prizes showered on The Theory Of Everything (2014), director James Marsh returns with another true story. The Mercy is the story of businessman and amateur sailor, Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) who, back in 1968, decided to take part in the Golden Globe Round The World Yacht Race. Convinced he could complete the toughest sailing challenge going – taking his yacht round the world, non-stop and solo – he raised sponsorship, put his house on the line and set sail in a boat that wasn’t up to the job.
The race was all over the media, such as it was then: three TV channels, four national radio stations and just a handful of local ones meant that newspapers were king. The country went sailing mad, Robin Knox-Johnston who crossed the line first was feted as a national hero and the third sailor in the race, Nigel Tetley, sank and was rescued. Which gave Crowhurst, who’d launched his bid on the last possible day, the chance to win the race outright. All he had to do was finish.
He couldn’t. His lack of experience and preparation meant he dropped behind early on and couldn’t make up the time. So he invented his progress, to save face and his home, all reinforced by the efforts of his tireless press agent, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis) who generated acres of newsprint and fed the growing fascination in the lone sailor.
On the face of it, this looks like a British All Is Lost, with Firth battling against the elements in a similar way to Robert Redford’s solo sailor. J C Chandor’s film was an object lesson in how to create drama and involvement using minimal dialogue so the connection between the actor and his audience came just from his expressions, eyes and actions. That’s not what The Mercy is about. Once Crowhurst has set sail, it’s a film with two settings. One is on board the boat, with him fighting against its shortcomings – and his own – while the other is back on dry land at home, with his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and their children waiting for his return, and the press clamouring for news.
This isn’t about one man’s resilience, nor is it about somebody following their dream. Crowhurst is all too fallible, stares disaster in the face and when solitude and his hopeless situation get to him, he starts to unravel: this being Colin Firth, he does it with a stiff upper lip. The trouble is that what’s happening back at home is more interesting. A lot of that is down to David Thewlis, who steals all of his scenes as the newshound who doesn’t miss a trick – until Clare really needs him. And the family scenes with Clare and the children are nicely created: warm and tender, but not overly soft in focus. This means the film loses its balance and is in serious danger of capsizing: even though it manages to remain afloat, what is meant to be the main story becomes a sub-plot and points to the film’s fundamental weakness. There isn’t enough to sustain a full length feature film.
The Mercy’s appeal lies very much with Firth and Weisz, but it’s questionable whether they alone will be enough to have audiences flocking to see it. Even though it’s been made with compassion and care, it’s a film that would be more at home on TV. Given that it’s a co-production with BBC Films, chances are it won’t be too long before it finds its natural home.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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