'The Mercy': Film Review

Uninspired biopic sheds little light on unfathomable maritime mystery.

Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz star in this tragic real-life adventure story from 'The Theory of Everything' director James Marsh.

A handsome period bio-drama about the doomed final voyage of yachtsman and fraudster Donald Crowhurst, The Mercy comes with an illustrious Britfilm pedigree. The director is James Marsh, whose credits include Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire and acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz headline the cast. And yet this unresolved maritime mystery feels oddly flat and functional, diluting a tragic tale full of unanswered questions into an anodyne middlebrow weepie. It opens on U.K. and Irish screens later this week, with a staggered global rollout to follow.

With its evergreen dramatic themes of grand ambition, financial desperation and human folly, Crowhurst’s story has already inspired stage plays, novels, poems, documentaries and even operas. Another big-screen treatment of the same story, Simon Rumley’s indie psycho-thriller Crowhurst, is also set to bow in the coming months. In a bold tactical move, The Mercy co-producers Studiocanal have also bought the rights to Rumley’s film, agreeing to release it soon after their bigger-budget rival version plays in theaters.

In 1968, Britain's Sunday Times newspaper launches its Golden Globe Race offering big cash prizes for the first ever single-handed, around-the-world, non-stop sailing voyage. Both the first and the fastest competitors will win £5000 each, the equivalent of around $80,000 today. An amateur sailor with four young children and mounting debts, Crowhurst (Firth) signs up for the race, hoping to reverse his bad luck and promote his current venture, an electronic nautical navigation device. Striking a high-stakes funding deal with businessman Stanley Best (Ken Stott), he sets to work preparing an innovative triple-hulled yacht for the race, the Teignmouth Electron.

Despite his own last-minute doubts, the reservations of wife Clare (Weisz) and ominous technical issues with his experimental boat, Crowhurst finally sets out to sea in late October. But his plans unravel almost immediately, falling far behind the competition. In an increasingly desperate state, with no hope of winning, he makes the fateful decision to abandon the race, lingering off the coast of South America and filing fake journey logs charting his fictional progress. He even makes landfall in Argentina, breaking the rules of the race, a detour that Marsh turns into a welcome injection of farcical human drama.

By early July 1969, after eight months of almost total solitude, and facing near certain financial ruin if he returns to Britain, Crowhurst suffers some kind of mental breakdown. He begins writing florid, delusional, quasi-religious screeds in his journals, one of which provides The Mercy with its title. His disappearance on the lonely high seas, most likely a suicide, is presented by Marsh in a suitably vague, symbolic manner. His unmanned yacht was found intact and adrift in the Atlantic on July 10,1969, but his fate remains an unsolved mystery almost half a century later.

Peppered with tender flashbacks to conversations between Crowhurst and his family, The Mercy frames this story primarily as a heart-tugging personal tragedy. Which of course it was, on one level, but Marsh’s conventional bio-drama approach does not yield great rewards cinematically. A bolder retelling of these strange events might have found richer psychological, political or social dimensions to Crowhurst’s disastrous failed mission.

To his credit, Marsh moves the story along at a breezy pace and milks maximum eerie effect from the sense-warping oddness of being out alone on the vast ocean, assailed by a constant soundtrack of creaks and cracks and slapping waves. In a departure from Rumley’s film, which had strong psychological horror undertones, The Mercy depicts Crowhurst’s descent into hallucinatory madness in relatively restrained, poetic terms. But while the two pictures vary wildly in tone and style, both ultimately struggle to resolve the same dilemma: There is little inherently dramatic about watching one man going progressively insane inside the cramped cabin of a sailing boat.

Firth’s performance, reliably solid but low on emotional intensity, only reinforces this general flatness of mood. David Thewlis brings some much-needed comic fizz as Crowhurst’s bumptious press agent, but Weisz’s acting skills are shamefully underused in her handful of bland vignettes as a passive, dutiful spouse.

The Mercy makes Crowhurst more hero than anti-hero, laying the brunt of blame for his death on arm-twisting business partners and sensation-hungry media vultures rather than on his own reckless adventurism. “Last week you were selling hope, now you are selling blame,” Clare angrily berates reporters when tragedy strikes. This soapy, simplistic line encapsulates a key problem of Marsh’s film, which constantly seeks the dry land of moral clarity where there is only an unfathomable ocean of uncertainty.

Production companies: Blueprint Pictures. BBC Films, Studiocanal
Cast: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Mark Gatiss, Finn Elliot
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Scott Z. Burns, Peter Czernin, Nicolas Mauvernay, Jacques Perrin
Cinematographer: Eric Gautier
Editors: Jinx Godfrey, Joan Sobel
Composer: Johann Johannsson

101 minutes