The Mercy marks director James Marsh’s follow-up to the much-praised Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything, and concerns a far more difficult real-life protagonist, featuring Colin Firth in one of his most complex and least comic roles.
Marsh has always had an interest in factual tales (in between the fictional Shadow Dancer and The King he turned out the docos Man On Wire and Project Nim and the docudramas Wisconsin Death Trip and The Team), and here he turns to Donald Crowhurst, the amateur sailor who had a breakdown during a round-the-world yacht race — and chronicled it every step of the way in his logbooks.
Drawn from a script by Scott Z. Burns (one of Steven Soderbergh’s regular collaborators), this introduces Firth’s Crowhurst as he tries to sell a new-fangled navigational device at a sailing convention in 1967, with a little help from eldest son James (Kit Connor). Crowhurst has something of a nautical obsession and his business is secretly suffering, so when The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race is announced by his idol Francis Chichester (Simon McBurney), Crowhurst decides that he wants to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe too.
His wife Clare (a very good Rachel Weisz) is less keen, but Donald forges ahead anyway, building a trimaran supposedly full of innovations and getting his enthusiastic kids involved (Eleanor Stagg shines as middle daughter Rachel). He’s also forced to negotiate deals with somewhat slimy money man Mr. Best (Ken Stott) and rather nicer press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis). Eventually the big day arrives and, despite many misgivings, he sets sail from Teignmouth, Devon, on October 31 1968, as his family finally realise that he’ll be gone for nine months.
Firth (20 years older than the real Donald) is then shown in long, sometimes disturbing sequences as Crowhurst struggles with loneliness, bad weather (via convincing FX) and his demons, as we cut back and forth from him alone on the water to his family on dry land, and he starts to lose it.
Eventually, after a damaging storm, he realises that the only thing to do is lie about his position and progress, and this cheating is demonstrated to be the last straw for him psychologically. Soon he’s experiencing some strange and scary hallucinations, all of which, again, he vividly wrote about in his logbooks. A most sportsmanlike thing to do, really.
Some have criticised Marsh and Burns’ lack of psychological insight into Crowhurst’s descent into insanity, yet Firth’s tremendous and certainly shipshape performance ensures that we understand and feel for him anyway, as he struggles with guilt at leaving his family behind and putting himself in harm’s way.
Rated M. The Mercy is in cinemas now.