Colin Firth portrays Donald Crowhurst, who competed in 1968 to become the first sailor to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe.
There are bad ideas, and then there’s Donald Crowhurst, the jolly but misguided amateur sailor played in this true-life drama by Colin Firth. With David Thewlis's press officer handling the media back home in Blighty and wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) left to wring her hands, Donald sets off in an unfinished yacht looking to make up for a series of delays and hit the high seas.
At first glance, James Marsh’s The Mercy looks like yet another overly polished, stiff upper lip, British biopic. But scratch beneath the surface and you find something much darker and far more melancholic. The film begins as breezy as a summer holiday in Cornwall, with Eric Gautier's grainy cinematography depicting better times. Suddenly, however, the realities of Crowhurst's disastrous voyage are spelled out and afternoon teas and plucky British humour are replaced by madness, filth, and isolation.
We are introduced to family man and garden shed inventor Donald Crowhurst, who, as middle age looms ever closer, dreams of achieving the extraordinary. In the late sixties, Britain was gripped by sailing fever. Sir Francis Chichester had recently circumnavigated of the globe single-handed, and it was in vogue to boat about on the channel. Crowhurst is infected by this fever to an extent that he decided against all reasonable judgement, to enter into the inaugural Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
In Firth’s hands, Crowhurst is instantly likeable as charming and grounded, yet tinged with the lumpy sadness of middle-age. He is riddling his mind with questions, ‘has he left it too late?’ ‘What is the sum of his life so far?’ And so, despite his charming home and beautiful children, he holds the memories of the Boy’s Own adventure books of his youth, that compel him to reach for the horizon. And so, even though Crowhurst’s boating experience extends to just sailing around Teignmouth, he sets out to sail around the world single-handed.
But it's not a just mid-life crisis that affects Crowhurt’s decisions. His success at the competition also means upliftment for the family’s financial situation, that, after his latest whizz-bang invention, the Navicator – a handheld direction finder, had been on a decline. Deciding initially not to tell his wife Clare, he mortgages his house against a loan, so he can build his bespoke and self-designed trimaran. As he departs from Teignmouth, everything he has rests on his success in this race.
The film moves on to Crowhurst’s physical and mental trials at sea. Firth presents Crowhurst as a man who is loyal, courageous and inventive, but ultimately deluded. We see Crowhurst soon out of his depth. He begins to deceive the race officials about his position giving the impression he is in with a chance of winning. His lie strikes at his conscience, yet he also knows failure in the race will mean financial ruin. Firth’s often pained expressions show the mental anguish well where Marsh relies on monologues to externalize internal thoughts.
The other half of the film focuses on the impact that Crowhurt’s decision and failure has had on the domestic front. It moves on to Clare, who must somehow clothe and feed the children, not to mention fed off the press, and deal with Crowhurst’s agent, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis). With her performance, Weisz shows to Clare to be much more than the doting wife: she’s inventive, resourceful, and, unlike her husband, acutely aware of the reality of the situation.
The Mercy is a compelling film, yet despite all the fine performances and intriguing subject matter, it is never quite compelling. It is in many ways remarkable that the film is so sympathetic with Crowhurst at almost every turn, making Crowhurst more hero than an anti-hero, laying the brunt of the blame for his death on arm-twisting business partners and sensation-hungry media vultures rather than on his own reckless adventurism. Perhaps it would have benefited with balancing the ballast with a little more critique, to make a more for a more compelling drama.