At first glance, James Marsh’s The Mercy looks like yet another overly polished, stiff upper lip, British biopic. But scratch beneath the surface of Marsh’s latest and you find something much darker and far more melancholic.
The Mercy aptly opens with a quote from Sir Edmund Hillary, “Men do not decide to become extraordinary, they decide to accomplish extraordinary things”. And so, we are introduced to family man and garden shed inventor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), 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 everyone loved boating about on the channel. This fever infected Crowhurst to the extent that he decided against all reasonable judgement, to enter into the inaugural Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
In Firth’s hands, Crowhurst is at once charming and grounded, yet tinged with the lumpy sadness of middle-age. Has he left it too late? What is the sum of his life so far? And despite his charming home and beautiful children, you can see that twinkle in his eye that remembers 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 sailing around Teignmouth, we believe with enough pluck and gusto he could sail around the world single-handed.
But there is more to Crowhurst’s choice that a mid-life crisis. We discover that his family’s financial situation rests on the success of his competition after his latest whizz-bang invention, the Navicator – a handheld direction finder – failed to make him his fortune. Deciding initially not to tell his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), 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.
We watch on as Crowhurst’s suffers both physical and mental trials at sea. Firth presents Crowhurst as a man who is loyal, courageous and inventive, but ultimately deluded. Crowhurst is soon out of his depth and 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, yet, unlike J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, Marsh relies on monologues to externalise internal thoughts, often undermining the drama of the moment.
The other half of the film focuses on the domestic dramas of 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.
Marsh has crafted a compelling film, yet for all the fine performances and intriguing subject matter it is never quite compelling. It is in many ways remarkable that The Mercy is so sympathetic with Crowhurst at almost every turn. Perhaps it would have benefited with balancing the ballast with a little more critique, to make a more for a more compelling drama.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh