FILM REVIEW: The Mercy
FILM: The Mercy
DIRECTOR: James Marsh
SYNOPSIS: The haunting true story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who competed in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in the hope of becoming the first person in history to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe without stopping. With an unfinished boat and his business and house on the line, Donald leaves his wife Clare and their children behind, hesitantly embarking on an adventure on his boat the Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst’s dangerous solo voyage and the struggles he confronted on the epic journey while his family awaited his return is one of the most enduring mysteries of recent times.
Review by Melissa Lee.
The most affecting thing about The Mercy is that it’s based on a true story. As the events play out onscreen, one cannot help but think of the real Donald Crowhurst, a hobbyist sailor who set out on the Golden Globe Race in 1968, alone and unaccompanied. While physical evidence from the real Teignmouth Electron provided clues as to Crowhurst’s mental and psychological state leading up to the end, it hardly compares to the stark bleakness of actually watching his slow spiral out of control play out onscreen.
Director James Marsh, most well-known for the critically-acclaimed The Theory of Everything (2014), treats the harsh reality of Crowhurst’s situation with a measured detachment that, while at first glance feels almost clinical, eventually proves itself to be a masterful touch. We as an audience are invited to consider not just the harrowing dismality of Donald Crowhurst’s self-instigated circumstances, but also Donald Crowhurst the person, and the internal struggle of performance and truth that affects us all.
Colin Firth takes the helm as Crowhurst, and throughout the 101 minutes of the film, he delivers a masterclass on restraint. Everything about Crowhurst as a character could have been easily overplayed to soap-level sentimentality — his earnest determination and quixotic ambition, his festering frustrations with both himself and the business partners who push him to embark on his journey, his final state of utter desolation. But Firth is clearly no stranger to the fine nuance required in portraying real-life persons, having won an Oscar for his impressive portrayal of the stuttering King George VI in 2010’s The King’s Speech. He exercises remarkable control in playing the meaty role of Donald Crowhurst, preferring to let the sparse but well-drafted dialogue shine through rather than let aggressive facial or bodily expressions speak for him.
Rachel Weisz and David Thewlis both show up in fine form as Crowhurst’s wife, Clare, and public relations officer, Rodney Hallworth respectively. Weisz, especially, is heartbreaking as the unflaggingly loyal Clare, who cares nothing for money and fame but invests all of her soul into her husband and their young children. Her graceful performance shows the strength of the everyday woman, strength that would match up against the best of Marvel and DC’s superheroes any day. Clare Crowhurst needs no powers or weapons to be a strong woman. Her power is her endurance and perseverance; her weapon is her clarity and sharpness of mind.
For most of the film, Marsh takes care to keep a careful distance from overly emotive imagery. The Crowhurst children, for example, are very much in the picture but never the focus. Crowhurst’s struggles alone on the Teignmouth Electron are portrayed unflinchingly, but almost with a matter-of-fact tone, rather than the raw darkness of, say, Cast Away (2000) or Life of Pi (2012). You feel frustration and resentment towards Firth’s Crowhurst, but at the same time, an unexpectedly compelling, rather empathetic sort of pity. Marsh’s reserve succeeds in sustaining the core thematic questions of the film: How does a man relate to his own ego, and how far will he go to protect it? What are the effects of letting that ego take control? What are the effects and consequences of that control (or lack thereof) on the people around him?
The Mercy is not an easy film to watch by any means. Subject matter aside, the pacing could be improved in certain scenes, and a few of the supporting cast are acceptable at best. However, thanks to wise direction and impressively grounded performances from the leads, it makes a fine film, one that poses important, challenging questions about the performance of self — questions that can be surprisingly pertinent in our image-obsessed world today.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Melissa Lee is a communication graduate with an enduring interest in film and TV and a deeper, more concerning interest for the Wikipedia and IMDB Trivia pages that accompany them. Her spare time is usually spent in a movie theatre or in front of a TV/computer with Netflix going at full speed. She also likes to think she’s an avid reader, but, alas, moving pictures on a bright screen are far more engaging for those individuals blessed with the attention span of a five-year-old, such as herself.