Current Issue #488

The Englishman and the Sea: James Marsh discusses The Mercy

The Englishman and the Sea: James Marsh discusses The Mercy

With The Mercy, director James Marsh flips the underdog story with his The Theory of Everything follow-up about failed adventurer Donald Crowhurst that can be seen as a metaphor for Brexit and an allegory about the decline of the British Empire.

In his award-winning documentaries and feature dramas, British filmmaker James Marsh brilliantly portrays lead characters who face great adversity: from the incredible preparation and self-determination of Philippe Petit, and his artistic crime of the century in Man on Wire, to Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and the MI5 informant Collette (played by Andrea Riseborough) who must spy on her IRA family to protect her child in Marsh’s underrated Shadow Dancer.

Marsh’s latest is the misadventure of Donald Crowhurst (a brilliant Colin Firth), an amateur sailor and inventor who enters a round-the-world sailing competition in the late ‘60s. The story is well-known in England but less so here. Firth plays a stiff upper-lip Englishman who attempts to win the Golden Globe yacht race, despite his inexperience, in his modified trimaran. His story has returned to the consciousness as another film about the same story is due to be released, called Crowhurst, while an acclaimed documentary narrated by Tilda Swinton, Deep Water, was released in 2006.

“It is kind of a mythical story,” Marsh says. “It has an interesting moral to it, which is not the one that you expect from a story that starts with a heroic underdog embarking on what appears to be an impossible challenge. Usually that story ends up with the underdog either triumphing or indeed enduring and surviving. This story is the opposite of that. It promises to be something that it isn’t.”


The UK voted to leave the EU while the film was still in production. The Mercy can be viewed as a metaphor for Brexit as Crowhurst decides to leave the safety net of his family (his wife is played by Rachel Weisz) and business to venture on an incredible and dangerous journey alone, which could mean financial ruin if he fails.

“It felt to me, and many other people who had seen the film, what Crowhurst did was in a way what we [England] were doing: cutting ourselves off from our certainties and going to a nostalgic future that will probably end in disaster,” Marsh says of the Brexit metaphor. “So, this story takes on this sort of interesting contemporary resonance if you want to see it that way. I think you can really see it that way. I think the comparisons are interesting, because he is a typical English character, the man who can go out on his own against the odds, and we’re a seafaring nation, and that was all part of his delusion, and is very much part of ours, too.”

Set in 1968, The Mercy is also an allegory about the end of the British Empire which occurred simultaneously with the rise of the United States.

“You can glimpse it in the film – the Americans are venturing into space and we were looking toward the opposite, which is one man on his own against the elements.”

Marsh believes you can see Crowhurst as the failed version of his documentary subject Philippe Petit, who walked across a highwire between the Two Towers in 1974. That film, Man on Wire, won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

“They are both taking their lives into their own hands essentially and taking a huge risk,” Marsh says of the comparisons between the two subjects. “No one’s forcing them to do it; it comes from something within them to test themselves. The big difference is that Philippe is extremely well prepared, methodical in his preparation and would never get on a wire if he was uncertain about it. Crowhurst does the exact opposite of that. I think in a sense Crowhurst is the failed version of Petit.”

The Mercy is in cinemas now.

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