There are currently 7.6 billion people living on planet Earth. But what that number also represents are the 7.6 billion stories out there for us to listen to. Old or young, everyone has a history worth telling. Unfortunately with the passage of time, most of our stories become lost. If we’re really lucky, our children and grandchildren will remember them, but the stories eventually disappear nonetheless.
The tale of Donald Crowhurst is one such story. Though his children and grandchildren are still alive, his story was one of shame, and a great many of those involved in this true story would prefer it to be forgotten. But it’s a credit to the team behind The Mercy that they saw a heart-breaking tale that deserves to be remembered just as much as those who are far more famous.
It’s early 1968 and British newspaper, The Sunday Times, announce “The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.” The first competition of its kind, it is a non-stop, solo, round-the-world yacht race. Not only would the winner be the first person in human history to circumvent the world solo, but there would also be a tempting £5000 prize for the winner.
An amateur weekend sailor, Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) decides to take a chance, believing that the new navigational technologies he has developed as part of his business would give him an edge. Despite her hesitation, his wife Claire (Rachel Weisz) also supports his decision.
Crowhurst quickly hires a publicist (David Thewlis) and has significant financial backing from a local businessman (Ken Stott). However, he is far behind schedule and is forced to set out with a great deal left incomplete, putting his entire attempt in jeopardy.
The true story of Donald Crowhurst is one that will resonate with a great many people. Not because of his nautical desires, but rather for the simple fact that he was a dreamer. He was a man who felt he hadn’t lived and wanted to prove himself a creature who achieved something. Haven’t we all felt like that at some point in our lives?
To that end, Colin Firth gives a stunning performance. Though Crowhurst technically undertakes his journey for financial reasons, Firth understands that this was just one small aspect of a complicated mind. Equal parts energetic and sympathetic, Firth shows us a man desperate to be admired by more than his immediate family.
It can’t have been easy, but the aforementioned acting, along with some stunning cinematography by Éric Gautier, means that director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) has crafted quite the compelling story in spite of some structural problems in the script.
This is most apparent in Weisz’s role as Crowhurst’s wife. While she has plenty to do in the first half, once the ship has set sail, her role becomes nothing more than pining at home for her husband. It would have been an incredibly brave choice, but staying with Crowhurst for his entire journey, getting to experience his loneliness in the same way he does, would have arguably made for a more powerful movie. Past films like Cast Away and All Is Lost prove that it is possible.
Indeed, the biggest flaw in this otherwise engaging film is that of structure. The choice to essentially split the film into two halves doesn’t quite work, either dramatically or emotionally. If the film had started with Crowhurst on his journey, but then intercut his voyage with flashbacks, then that would have gone a long way to balancing out the drama with the emotion.
Furthermore, as the film approaches its closing moments, there is a slight confusion to the message the film is trying to convey. While the bulk of the film suggests that Crowhurst’s problems are mostly due to his overreaching, there is instead a rather strange and artificial pivot into blaming the media for Crowhurst’s ills. It’s a puzzling choice and one that ultimately feels rather disingenuous.
Despite its structural flaws and odd ending message, The Mercy is a gripping voyage with an astounding central performance from its leading man. If only all biopics were just as sea worthy.
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