The Mercy (UK / 12A / 102 mins)

In short: A quiet salute

Directed by James Marsh. Starring Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott.

The Plot: Teignmouth, England, 1968. Inventor, boatbuilder and amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) is entranced by a Sunday Times competition that challenges competitors to circumnavigate the world, non-stop and alone. With the backing of his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), local sponsor Mr. Best (Ken Stott) and PR man Rodney (David Thewlis), he sets out to build a boat that is up to the challenge. There’s a launch deadline looming ahead, but that’s nothing compared to what’s ahead on the high seas, as he faces up to his own failings, the limits of ambition and a boat that is far from ready…

The Verdict: There’s a strong air of hubris about The Mercy, in much the same way as Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man was a sobering account of human foolhardiness. Donald Crowhurst’s story is one of human ambition weighed against the realities of human frailty. Crowhurst was an ordinary man with grand ambitions, hoping to better the life of his family. Without revealing too much about what conspires, it’s enough to say that he had to face the hard facts of his situation – alone, far from home and with no way in or out.

Director James Marsh eschews the typical trappings of these types of stories, in which Mother Nature is usually presented as the enemy. Crowhurst was his own worst enemy, creating a perfect storm of situations that conspired against his own hopes and dreams. And yet, there’s a sense of sympathy that comes across throughout the film, as if Marsh admires his subject and didn’t want to judge him too harshly. That gives the film a more three-dimensional aspect, making Crowhurst a flawed but all-too-human character to root for. He also scatters startling imagery at key points, like dead horses floating just below the surface – a hint of mortality?

It’s not just the strong direction that comes across so well. Firth, a sailor himself, digs deep into Crowhurst, finding his good and bad aspects while keeping him firmly relatable. It’s an under-stated performance which is note-perfect and true to the story. Weisz could have been given the thankless wife-at-home role here. Instead, she makes it her own, giving an impassioned speech towards the end which summarises the spirit of the film as a whole. It’s quite a gripping film too, asking the audience to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. The Mercy (a title explained late in the film) is a quality true-life drama that is a quiet salute to human heroism – no matter how foolhardy.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

The Mercy
A quiet salute
4.0A quiet salute
  • emerb

    “The Mercy” tells the remarkable and tragic true story of well-spoken, amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst in 1968. He enters into a round-the-world yacht contest but he is totally out of his depth, neither fully prepared nor qualified. In order to avoid humiliation and to not have to face his financial backers, he finds himself having to resort to falsifying his logs to conceal his failure from his family and the rest of the world who are watching. Slowly his mind begins to unwind and he eventually succumbs to madness, alone and out in the ocean. Directed by James Marsh (“Man On Wire” and “The Theory of Everything”), it stars Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles and has attracted much movie interest over the years.
    In 1968, The Sunday Times in Britain launched its “Golden Globe Race” for the first ever round-the-word, non-stop sailing voyage. The cash rewards offered were generous and tempting for Donald Crowhurst, who was struggling financially with his wife and children. Despite his lack of skill and the fact that his yacht wasn’t properly seaworthy, he signed up, striking a big funding deal with businessman Stanley Best (Ken Stott). Despite the doubts of his wife, he set out in late October with high hopes. However, almost immediately he begins to fall behind and his yacht turns out to be completely unsuited to ocean travel. He knows he won’t make the journey and so resorts to abandoning the race, dawdling off the coast of South America, filing fake journey logs and telling his wife lies over the radio. As he sails around the ocean in circles, his situation starts to become ever more desperate and as his mental states starts to deteriorate rapidly, he begins to lose his mind. Eventually, after 8 months alone at sea, he suffers a mental breakdown. He starts to write obscure, delusional paragraphs in his journal (providing “The Mercy” with its title) and nobody hears from him again. His disappearance was largely considered a suicide and although his yacht was found intact and adrift in the Atlantic, his body was never found. Exactly what happened in those final days remains a mystery to this day.

    “The Mercy” is an enjoyable, engaging personal tragedy which benefits from strong performances and good attention to period detail. Firth gives a reliably solid turn as a tragic figure alone at sea forced to contemplate his own unravelling as he sinks further into despair. Weisz is the loyal but concerned wife but her role is somewhat underdeveloped until late on in the film where she is forced to face the media who hound her. Without breaking any new territory, this is a pleasant, if somewhat unremarkable film