The Mercy review: Colin Firth’s best performance in years
Dir: James Marsh. Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Jonathan Bailey, Andrew Buchan. 12A cert, 102 mins
The story of Donald Crowhurst, who set off solo from Teignmouth in October 1968 on an uninterrupted, eventually infamous round-the-world yacht race, is extraordinary. For those who don’t know it yet, there’s a decision to be made, much as we have a choice in approaching, say, Othello for the first time: reading it, picking the right stage production, or opting for the Olivier, or the Welles, on film.
The Mercy is a full-scale adaptation, with a fairly lavish part-BBC budget, and big stars – Colin Firth as Crowhurst, Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare – giving it the prestige push. For starters, we get Firth’s best, most intent performance of the past several years. Forget that the real-life Crowhurst was physically more of an Eddie Marsan type. This is a deep, intelligent portrait of a man with quixotic ideas of making his name, and a man whose soul frayed at sea.
Some aspects of James Marsh’s direction work very nicely. He leans heavily on sound design – the clatter and creak of on-board equipment, the pounding of waves – to get us into the headspace of a powerful isolation. Crowhurst spent nine months totally alone on his boat, soon abandoning hope of finishing the circumnavigation before his competitors, and at a certain, fateful stage, of finishing it at all.
A lot of meticulous research has clearly gone into Scott Z. Burns’ script, especially in establishing the external pressures which essentially pushed Crowhurst out to sea, before he was satisfied with the capabilities of his custom-built trimaran.
He had bet the house on this endeavour – quite literally signing over property rights to his sponsor Stanley Best (Ken Stott) in the event that he defaulted. His press agent (a garrulous David Thewlis) eggs him on, right before departure, not to let doubts swallow him up, and there’s a sense of his fate being sealed by forces not wholly in his control.
All told, it’s hard to say why The Mercy, which is completely respectable and well-acted, doesn’t add up to the shattering experience that Crowhurst’s biopic ought to be. It has the bad luck to follow a documentary, a dozen years ago, on the same subject: Deep Water, a Film4-commissioned 2006 account by Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond, which remains painfully moving, in part because of the contributions from Donald’s surviving family members, who broke their silence for the first time there.
There’s nothing in The Mercy to match the recollections of his son Simon, aged eight at the time, who remembers lying awake, scared, in choppy weather, the night before his dad set off. They’ve even cut one of his children out for this treatment, which is a guaranteed way to alienate family support. And their evident lack of involvement unfortunately makes itself felt: we’re at a glossy remove from the core emotions of the story.
Cinematographer Éric Gauthier, who did a great job on Into the Wild capturing Chris McCandless’s trek into the Alaskan wilderness, bathes this too often in a rosy sunset glow: given the deepening despair of Crowhurst’s situation, it’s a good deal too pretty and packaged-seeming. The structural decisions – beyond weak gimmicks like an imaginary 11th-hour chat between husband and wife – are mainly pedestrian, too.
It’s no particular fault of Weisz’s that all the waiting around at home feels kind of arbitrary, a series of padded-out gestures to give her requisite screen time. And because we shuttle back and forth between Clare’s apprehensions and Donald’s distress, the film squanders the purity of being a one-man-at-sea, Robert-Redford-in-All-is-Lost-type exercise. It should probably have picked one perspective on the story – even hers – rather than hedging its bets with both.
Through all the film’s bumps and scrapes, Firth does invest a lot of commendable energy in helping us grasp Crowhurst’s besieged state of mind. It’s a good performance in shaky circumstances, but at least he honours the man’s contradictions, on top of his terror of public failure, and even greater one of exposure as a fraud. Crowhurst mentioned “the sin of concealment” in his legendary logbooks – scrawled documents of a mind’s unravelling.
The Mercy’s sins, on top of its genuine virtues, are more those of airbrushing. As such, it shouldn’t be anyone’s first port of call in getting to grips with the Crowhurst saga – there are several books about it, and there’s Deep Water. As a companion piece, though, it does the man no disgrace.