The Mercy – movie review

by Peter Calder / 15 March, 2018

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Colin Firth shines in The Mercy, a drama about a quixotic yachtie who sails into trouble.

The story of Donald Crowhurst’s attempt to be the first man to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world has been often told, notably in a riveting 1970 book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, and in at least 10 films, including the definitive documentary Deep Water in 2006. It has inspired plays, poems, novels, songs and even an opera.

It’s debatable whether knowing how things turned out will spoil the pleasures offered by this occasionally workmanlike but often transcendent dramatisation starring Colin Firth, but if you want to remain unaware, skip to the paragraph beginning “The film …”

The least likely, and last to leave, of the nine entrants in the “Golden Globe Race” sponsored by the Sunday Times, Crowhurst was at best a weekend sailor who hoped the £5000 prize would save his failing electronics business. Hopelessly underprepared and amid chaos on deck and below, he soon found himself caught between the devil of financial guarantees he had made and the deep blue sea of the Southern Ocean, which he knew his disintegrating boat would not withstand.

He hit on a plan of deception that was, by the bitterest of ironies, undone by a stroke of what would otherwise have been good luck. Somewhere in the Atlantic – his boat was found in the Sargasso Sea at the same latitude as Portugal – he lost his heart and his mind. He is assumed to have stepped overboard. His body wasn’t found.

The film, which takes its title from Crowhurst’s last logbook entry, does a great job of communicating his inner turmoil. The opening stanzas are brisk and choppy – they have the headlong, condensed feel of a trailer, which is exactly as disquieting as he intends.

More important, director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything and the enthralling Man on Wire) maintains a documentarian’s detachment, even as he focuses on Crowhurst’s family, helmed by Rachel Weisz in the thankless role of his wife, Clare. Only she and we seem to see the nauseous grin that Firth, a master of small gestures, deploys when required to feign doughty optimism, and a heartrending bedroom scene on the eve of his departure makes plain the scale of the bind she is in.

Yet the film never surrenders to the temptation of sentimentality. Toggling between the peril at sea (hat tip to Éric Gautier’s cinematography, by turns clammily cramped and awesomely expansive) and the cheering of his supporters at home, led by a wide-boy PR man (David Thewlis), it becomes a sustained exercise in almost unbearable dramatic irony.

But it’s Firth’s film, really. He has a feel for quixotic, pained heroes, and Crowhurst is as quixotic as they come.

Video: STUDIOCANAL New Zealand

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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