The Mercy is a biopic about Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who disappeared when competing in The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968 – a race for sailors to navigate around the globe solo.
Donald (Colin Firth) is a father-of-three, inventor and the owner of a small electronics company. When he finds out about the race around the world he sees it as an opportunity to promote his company and more importantly become famous. His enthusiasm is quickly dashed by a series of setbacks and if he is unable to complete the race he would face financial ruin.
The Mercy is the third feature film by director James Marsh and was adapted by Scott Z. Burns. Marsh previous films have been dramas set in particular periods, Shadow Dancer was set in Northern Ireland during the early ’90s and The Theory of Everything was set from the ’60s to the ’80s as it looked at Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his wife. Marsh is great a recreating these periods and he does it again with The Mercy – the set designs were so authentic that the film does look like it was filmed in the ’60s.
Marsh also has a keen interest in family and relationships. The Theory of Everything was pretty obviously about the Hawking’s relationship and Shadow Dancer was about a single mother in Northern Ireland being used as an informant for MI5 – and the film looked at the complex relationship between the informant and her handler. The Mercy also has this family focus. Donald has a loving family and a supportive wife, Clare (Rachel Weisz) – but the trip takes its toll on them. Donald suffers from guilt when he decides to cheat whilst in England, the Crowhursts suffer such hardship that they have to go on welfare.
Even with a running of an hour and 40 minutes The Mercy is a slow and methodical film which will leave audiences divided – this happened with Shadow Dancer and it happened here. Some may appreciate the slow burn approach but others might become bored and lose interest.
The bulk of the film focused on Donald at sea and the depression he falls into. He is constantly maintaining his boat which puts a physical and mental strain on the man and it is compounded by the fact that if he quits he loses his house and business. What makes his isolation and depression worst is the guilt and shame he suffers when he decides to lie about his progress. It was an excellent portrayal of isolation that someone who undergoes this sort of challenge goes through and when Donald wrote in his logs and recorded tapes there was a similarity to Ellen MacArthur, a British sailor who broke the record for the fastest time to circumnavigate the world in 2005 – and her video diary where she got very emotional.
In recent years Colin Firth has changed his image from being a heartthrob in romantic films to a serious dramatic actor and role like Donald Crowhurst would have been particularly challenging. Firth captures Donald’s unfounded optimism as he prepares for the voyage, the doubts that creep in when he is forced to set – despite the boat not being ready – and finally his depression and isolation. Despite Donald’s lying about his progress Firth, Marsh and Burns made sure Donald Crowhurst was a sympathetic figure and his reasoning for why he does it – since he has risked everything to feed his ego.
The film was based on Donald Crowhurst’s logs and audio recordings but the filmmakers still had to fill in the gaps. His boat was found abandoned in the Caribbean and no one really knows what happened to him – although the film favors the standard interpretation that he took his own life.
The Mercy is a film that is lifted by the talents of its cast, look at mental health in such an extreme situation and had great cinematography and production design. But it one of those films that only requires the one-viewing.