The Mercy, 2018.
Directed by James Marsh.
Starring Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Jonathan Bailey, Ken Stott, Eleanor Stagg, Finn Elliot, Kit Connor, Oliver Maltman, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Sam Hoare, Avye Leventis, Andrew Buchan, Anna Madeley, Adrian Schiller, Simon Chandler, Genevieve Gaunt, Alexia Traverse-Healy, Dorothy Atkinson, Sebastian Armesto, and Martin Marquez.
The incredible story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst and his solo attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The struggles he confronted on the journey while his family awaited his return is one of the most enduring mysteries of recent times.
If the first act of The Mercy feels somewhat rushed, that’s because director James Marsh is more interested in the psychological effects of failing an extremely ambitious goal. Having made Man on Wire (the outstanding documentary detailing the before and after of Philippe Petit’s insane tightrope walk between New York skyscrapers), it’s clear that the filmmaker is fascinated by what drives real-life figures to embark on perilous adventures, but rarely do we see stories of such grandiose and inspiring underdog feats ending tragically.
Colin Firth plays family man Donald Crowhurst, a struggling inventor with minimal sailing experience and an unsuccessful business where his latest device, a navigational tool for those at sea, is not selling well at a trade show of sorts. He does become aware of the Golden Globe challenge, which is a prize competition open to anyone (although it is mainly comprised of experienced sailors) tasking the daring to sail around the globe without stopping, contemplating entering it against the wishes of his supportive wife Clare (Rachel Weisz given the usual cliché role containing a twist here by the end considering how things turn out, nailing the emotional beats when it’s her time to shine) craving celebrity status from both the world and his own children, personal pride, adventure, and of course, to solve their financial woes.
Admittedly, it’s an issue that The Mercy plays up all of those aspects more than the money problems, leaving audiences feeling like Donald was a selfish jerk that temporarily abandoned his family in a midlife crisis. When he’s halfway around the world and mutters to himself that this was a terrible idea, it’s difficult to resist replying “no shit” to the screen. Not to mention, the boat he had specifically designed for this oceanic tour around the world wasn’t exactly ready for such conditions, and as already mentioned, Donald was a very inexperienced sailor. There’s also the fact that as all of this becomes a money pit, he puts up his home and business in order to cover the costs, placing further pressure on emerging victorious for the elapsed time portion of the race (his boat took too long to prepare to set sail and compete in the traditional race to the finish line).
Quickly equipment breaks and we realize for good that Donald is not cut out for this task, which the direction from James Marsh utilizes by playing with the uplifting tropes of the genre. There’s a segment on Christmas morning where he gets the opportunity to talk to his family, and while the notion is already bittersweet considering the family is separated, this cliché material has its dynamic toyed with as on Donald’s end, we know no matter how hard he fakes the progress he is making (a pressed publicist played by David Thewlis is also on hand to talk up how well the underdog is doing, mostly given lies to go off of), he’s dealing with some demons cropping up inside.
The major problem here is that not much of this is communicated very well unless the viewer also understands sailing. It doesn’t help that Donald becomes a mentally unhinged from this and a few more unfolding events I will not spoil, ultimately meaning audiences have an even less reliable protagonist. The good news is that Colin Firth is able to slowly escalate to these crazed beats with nuance and restraint, aided by a noteworthy physical transformation complete with scruffy facial features and malnourishment. Again, as fine as he is in the role, it’s Rachel Weisz that surprisingly gets the best material to work with during the final 10 minutes or so. And while there isn’t necessarily much action, the natural scenery is aesthetically pleasing and makes for a more immersive troubling journey.
It’s tough to actually talk about The Mercy without outright spoiling it, but this is an intriguing surface level analysis of what failure and dishonor can do to an ambitious man with something he desperately wants to prove. Consider it a cautionary tale against the very thing that is Donald’s undoing, whether he is finding success or failing: personal pride. Just be forewarned that you may have to do some research following the film to fully understand what happened, but even then, there is more mystery to contemplate which only adds to the dialogue around the themes at play.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com