Director: James Marsh
Runtime: 101 minutes
As someone who loves historical film, nautical themes in film, and especially nautically-themed historical film, The Mercy should have been a movie that I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Despite the fascinating true story that director James Marsh and screen writer Scott Z. Burns had to play with, The Mercy came off as an insipid attempt at garnering sympathy for its lead Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth). The bevy of talented actors and crew who worked on The Mercy are sadly wasted, including the recently passed composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, all relegated to the background as if Marsh couldn’t figure out what to do with them.
The Mercy is based on the true story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who attempted to circumnavigate the world by yacht in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968–1969. With no open ocean sailing experience, and a custom-built yacht (Teignmouth Electron) hindered by construction delays, lack of supplies, and an overblown budget, Crowhurst is an underdog figure you want to barrack for. However, failure after failure dogs Crowhurst as he falls further behind his competition, taking on damages and repairs at sea from incomplete equipment, lying to not only his family, but to the press about his progress in the race. To make matters worse, Donald had mortgaged both his business and family home for the construction of the Teignmouth Electron, leaving his wife Clare Crowhurst (Rachel Weisz) with the crushing knowledge that her husband has to complete this race or sacrifice their livelihood.
Lies can only take one so far, and Donald begins to crumble under the expectations of the press as he falsifies his journey far beyond his initial intentions. As the film meanders aimlessly towards its conclusion, so does Donald’s psyche, the inevitable madness from isolation and guilt setting in as more of his fellow competitors retire from the race. Interluded with brief returns to the supporting cast of his family, press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), and the London-based Sunday Times office, I couldn’t help but think of a skit in the morning television satire show Get Krack!n, where the hosts Kate and Kate kick a self-absorbed wilderness photographer off the show shouting, “And who looked after your kids while you were away? Your WIFE!”
It is hard not to judge Donald harshly for his actions, especially since there is a lack of compelling reasons shown in the film for him to have entered the race in the first place. Doing even the most cursory of research into the true story behind The Mercy reveals answers that the film frustratingly omits, such as “Why didn’t Donald just buy a yacht?” (he attempted to do so, and he was rejected); “Why weren’t there spare parts onboard?” (they were left on the docks, alongside the briefly mentioned Christmas present which the director felt was a more important detail than explaining where Donald’s repair supplies were); and most importantly, “Why didn’t the organisers of the race stop him from sailing?” (it was an open race, thus nobody had to prove they’d sailed before, such as fellow competitor Chay Blyth who asked his friends to rig his boat on the day of departure so he could learn how to do it).
These details, ones which enrich the story and actually give reason to sympathise with Donald Crowhurst, are conspicuously absent. The Mercy starts slow, hits a dead calm, and never finds a second wind as it attempts to be the next Cast Away (Zemeckis 2000). In order to balance the story of “man isolated at sea”, one cannot rely on long shots of Colin Firth staring wistfully into the horizon, or hearing him complain about the circumstances of his own making. This could have been artfully paced with a smoother transition into Donald’s madness, or even delving deeper into his motivations behind entering the Golden Globe race, and his desire to quit before even departing. Instead, Marsh chooses to illustrate Donald’s psychological break-down in “romantic”, softly lit shots that are as fuzzy and weak as Donald’s onscreen protests against going to sea.
Ultimately, The Mercy has a compelling history that it fails to bring onscreen. Despite attempting to set his audience up to be sympathetic with Donald Crowhurst, I left the cinema feeling more upset about his wife and family who had to bear the consequences of Crowhurst’s foolishness. It had the potential to be an absorbing exploration of Donald’s life, the race, and the events that pushed him into such a treacherous endeavour, but it left me frustrated at the melting fairy-floss tale made from the vast wealth of resources at Marsh’s disposal, including some of the best actors Britain has to offer. Perhaps, like Donald Crowhurst, director James March was overambitious and didn’t know where to stop.