The first of two films to be released in quick succession about real-life amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, James Marsh’s The Mercy is the glossy high-budget version of the story, starring A-list actors Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. The edgier, low-fi version – simply titled Crowhurst and directed by British maverick filmmaker Simon Rumley – promises to examine Crowhurst’s plight through the prism of psychological horror, an intriguing decision that The Mercy ignored.
Set in 1968, Marsh’s film begins as the Sunday Times launches the Golden Globe Race, offering £5000 cash prizes to both the first and fastest competitors in this first-ever single-handed, around-the-world boat race. A father of four, the optimistic Crowhurst (Firth) decides to enter, desperate to clear his debts by winning a prize and even use the race to promote his new invention – an electronic navigation device.
Teaming up with a local businessman (Ken Scott) to design a unique triple-hulled yacht, the Teighmouth Electron, Crowhurst eventually sets sail later than expected, with his loving wife Clare (Weisz) left at home with the children. But as a combination of bad luck and bad weather soon foils him, he’s left knowing he faces financial ruin. Then he hits upon a plan: fake his journey logs in the hope of somehow fooling the organisers.
As anyone who is au fait with Crowhurst’s fate will know, his boat was eventually discovered at sea and he was nowhere to be found. Did he fall overboard? Did he take his own life? Marsh skirts around the issue, understandably, but never quite convinces in depicting Crowhurst’s on-boat psychological breakdown (journals left on board suggest he suffered from mental trauma).
Firth’s casting feels misguided; he looks the part but emotionally never quite gets under the skin of Crowhurst. Around him, Weisz invests real feeling into Clare, despite being given few scenes to make an impact, and there’s a neat part for David Thewlis, who brings energy to the role of Crowhurst’s press agent. But really this is Firth’s film, one that trains the camera on him.
While the actor does his very best with a limited script, it feels all too comfortable and Marsh never quite comes to grips with the problems of showing a man disintegrate below deck. Compare it to the magnificent Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost, an entirely solo ocean adventure, and The Mercy is left, well, at sea.
The Mercy opens in cinemas today. For more information, click here.