Despite being the inspiration for dozens of films, plays and novels (including another film coming out later this month), most will be unfamiliar with the story of Donald Crowhurst. A businessman and weekend sailor, Crowhurst (Colin Firth) chooses to enter the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race to claim the title of first person to sail solo around the world without stopping. Upon realising mid-race that he has no real chance of winning, however, and that returning home will result in public humiliation and economic ruin, Crowhurst decides to falsify his logbooks to make it look like he really had circumnavigated the world.
To some, The Mercy’s premise may be enough to deter them from watching the film altogether. It’s understandable they may not like the idea of watching a man descend into madness alone on a boat. However, the film never allows itself to get too in-your-face dark by ensuring that the story keeps skipping along at a refreshingly brisk pace –after all, the entire film clocks in an impressively succinct 101 minutes. The beginning in particular is worthy of praise. Even if you know nothing about the film going in, you’re obviously going to spot the general plot (our hero sets himself a daunting task) in the first few minutes. One might fear that the director would then feel the need to go through the motions, with drawn-out scenes of Crowhurst begging his wife, family and sponsors to let him compete –but no, instead, all of this is dealt with in a few minutes of montage and you’re on the boat with Crowhurst before the first act even ends.
Director James Marsh (of Man On Wire fame and more recently, The Theory of Everything) manages to come up with some innovative ways of depicting Crowhurst’s on-setting insanity. More impressive is the director’s nifty editing which alternates between the trimaran on the ocean, flashbacks before the race began, and scenes back home in Teignmouth. The constant swapping back and forth, combined with the film’s snappy pacing, stops you from ever having to spend too much of the film stuck on the boat with the isolated Crowhurst.
Colin Firth is his usual stellar self. The role of Donald Crowhurst is not a dramatic one (he’s supposed to be the British everyman after all) so this is not a chance to deliver any overtly melodramatic monologues or a particularly wide range of emotions. This doesn’t stop Firth from turning in a great performance however, as he manages to portray a sympathetic and touching Crowhurst. He achieves this, not through manic screaming or soliloquy but through restraint and impressive subtlety, almost all of which is communicated through Firth’s highly emotive face. Special praise must go to Rachel Weisz, who also reins in a potentially over-the-top performance in favour of a more subtle and moving one as Crowhurst’s wife Clare. One keeps waiting for the obligatory break-down scene where the forever-waiting wife begins smashing plates in the kitchen, another cliche thankfully sidestepped here. Ultimately, The Mercy’s characters are not the stars of the film, and Firth & company know it, gracefully stepping back to let the story’s tragic themes shine through.
Those disinterested in politics must groan every time critics begin discussing the Brexit undertones in British cinema at the moment. Perhaps the fact that this film would seem to be anti-Brexit will intrigue people who are sick of the constant jingoistic fluff we’ve been seeing lately. Here, the Brexit undertones seem intentional; the most obvious being Crowhurst’s agent (David Thewlis) describing Donald as the kind of Englishman Churchill had foretold of during the war. Elsewhere, fellow competitor Bernard Moitessier is constantly referred to as the “Frenchman”. And later on, Crowhurst’s agent stresses the importance of Donald getting back to Teignmouth before the Americans reach the moon. It’s clear that this film is depicting a country that wants to get one up on its neighbours; a people who feel the need to validate their own sense of elevated status in the world. To reinforce those undertones further, Crowhurst was not simply unlucky; it wasn’t bad weather that cost him the race. Instead we see how completely inexperienced he was, choosing to construct his own boat (which was nowhere near finished by race-time) and attempting an around-the-world race despite having rarely sailed outside his home of Teignmouth. If this film is in fact a comment on Brexit, then it’s a pretty damning one.
And while Crowhurst’s story is not unique to Britain, anyone who has been following the Brexit negotiations will most likely have noticed an undeniable sense of entitlement and expectation on the part of the UK Government. One can’t help but speculate how perhaps Crowhurst’s story has been retold this year (as opposed to the story of fellow Brit, Robin Knox-Johnson, who actually won the race) to represent that sense of entitlement we’re seeing in the news. We are told how even before he is found out, experienced sailors such as Sir Francis Chichester expressed serious doubts at the speeds which Crowhurst claimed to have been travelling. And yet this didn’t deter the British public from believing in Crowhurst. In The Mercy, Marsh depicts a Britain that wanted to believe in Joe Everyman who courageously chose to brave the elements and earn another triumphant victory for King and country.
It must be stressed that this sense of entitlement is not unique to Britain nor the Brexit negotiations. Every country thinks itself ancient and virtuous; that its people spring from a more noble stock than its neighbours. If anything, this film’s message is bigger than that. We all know Sir Edmund Hillary, Captain Robert Scott, Neil Armstrong –but none of us know those who tried and failed. In the big picture, The Mercy is a testament to the thousands of fallen men and women who line the treacherous path to glory.
One hesitates to write a review with no criticisms at all, but when a director’s aims are so simple, and its execution so solid, what is there to criticise? Perhaps experienced sailors will spot inconsistencies in Crowhurst’s ship or its rigging. The soundtrack is instantly forgettable, and the cinematography doesn’t attempt anything particularly noteworthy. Perhaps one small complaint is the name: The Mercy – it’s a tad dull for such a fascinating tale. But again, these criticisms feel somewhat flaccid, as it’s clear that Marsh has dialed everything back in order to allow the story to take centre stage.
The Mercy is the tale of a man who embarked on a modern, quixotic quest and one that clearly continues to fascinate people even today. It’s about the person who reaches for the stars and fails tragically. We are told that all you need in life is to believe in yourself and you can achieve anything –this film is a dark, but perhaps given the times we live in, also an important reminder of how sadly untrue that is.