You must remember The Theory of Everything? Released just a couple of years before the death of legendary scientist Stephen Hawking, it told the story of his life most people had forgotten, as ingrained he was in our minds as the wheelchair-bound man speaking through an electronic device. James Marsh, who directs The Mercy, reminded us Hawking was once a bold young man who lived and loved passionately before a crippling disease removed his mobility. A triumph over adversity story celebrating a remarkable life, Marsh reminded us of often-untold biographical history – which makes him perfect directorial material for a film such as The Mercy.
The difference here is that much fewer people have ever heard the name Donald Crowhurst, mainly because his tragic story does not end with the same level of success as Hawking’s did. A middle-class British family man in the 1960’s, Crowhurst—essayed here by the redoubtably British Colin Firth—becomes obsessed with attempting a round the world yacht sailing race, at the expense of his children and wife Clare (the always excellent Rachel Weisz), in order to give his life meaning through a historic sense of adventure. The Mercy becomes a film about how this obsession tears a man away from a comfortable life in order to endure a battle with the elements and his own sanity, in order to enter the history books.
Crowhurst is an interesting character who Firth does what he can to make relatable and sympathetic when, honestly, he comes across as really rather selfish, not to mention naive. There is a Boy’s Own level of passion about him but you sense this is quite an extreme reaction to a mid-life crisis, and his wife is incredibly tolerant of his whimsy in building a boat, and putting his entire house and business on the line in order to finance an expedition he ends up being unable to extricate himself from. Firth does convey how torn he is between his voyage and his family, and Crowhurst does in fairness to him consider coming home at various points, but there is a fatality about Marsh’s film, an inevitability, which makes it quite a sad, spiralling experience.
My issue with The Mercy was that I didn’t *feel* it. The Theory of Everything was a clearer story in terms of pulling at the heart strings, given what Hawking ended up going through, and in fairness to Marsh it isn’t quite that simple with The Mercy. The psychology of Crowhurst is slightly more complicated in his choices and reasons, and the film does explore that—alongside the turmoil and pressure placed at home on Weisz’s Clare by the media and exploitative businessmen looking to exploit and profit from Crowhurst’s adventure. You just never quite feel the claustrophobic tragedy of it all in the way you hoped you would; Marsh doesn’t isolate Crowhurst enough, or the storytelling enough, to pull us in with him.
Take a film such as Robert Redford’s All Is Lost or even Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away – you felt the isolation in those pictures, and certainly in the latter how solitude takes a psychological toll on Tom Hanks’ character. The Mercy goes for introspective, understated and a little fractured in exploring Crowhurst’s mind, perhaps to leave a level of ambiguity once we reach the climax. In the real-life story, not all of the questions are answered, and certainly for Clare the emotional journey is not yet over.
So while Marsh directs with poise and captures the period, quaint British 60’s detail appropriately, teasing some very good performances from a skilled ensemble cast, The Mercy simply isn’t captivating enough to always swim, even though it never comes close to sinking.
- Roundtable with Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Danny Leigh
- Behind the Scenes Featurette
- Donald Featurette
The Mercy is now available to buy on DVD/BluRay.