The tragic story of Donald Crowhurst offers the dark other side to the underdog spirit. James Marsh’s film The Mercy recounts the tragic voyage of the amateur sailor who hoped to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race to circumnavigate the globe in a boat he made himself. As problems arise, and the journey seems impossible, Crowhurst must choose between failure and humiliation or almost certain death.
The first act, covering Crowhurst’s inspiration and early planning of the voyage, is structured like a conventional underdog story. Yet there’s a pervasive sense of unease throughout. The handheld camera work evokes the naturalism of Lars Von Trier, framing the somewhat stilted dialogue with a sinister omniscience. The effect is to emphasise the threat inherent in the bold adventure being devised.
There’s a chilling quality to Crowhurst’s story. The man’s logs suggest a greatly troubled state of mind. This madness is articulated very inventively through the editing which embraces cut and duplicated frames to truly discomfort the audience’s senses. I was pleasantly surprised by how abstract Marsh was willing to be in articulating Crowhursts growing fear and disorientation. I was occasionally reminded of the inventiveness of JC Chandor’s superlative lost at sea thriller, All Is Lost, and maybe even the metaphysical strangeness of Darren Aaronofsky.
These unusual qualities would have little impact if not for Colin Firth’s committed performance as Crowhurst. Firth succeeds at being charming and deeply relatable in his ambitions. As his journey begins taking its dark turns he expresses great frustration and fear. Firth and Marsh succeed in presenting a devastatingly real, lonely voyage.
Rachel Weisz plays Clare Crowhurst and is, as always, a forceful presence on screen. Though adopting the traditional wife-left-at-home role, she embues great nuance to the woman who supported the man she loved to undertake a task she feared would claim his life. Although the family were often a little too idyllic, Weisz’ sorrow was always palpable, and her bravery always sadly transparent.
Other roles are enlivened by a cast of great character actors. David Thewlis offers another slippery turn as the morally dubious publicist (recalling his deeply sinister turn in the third season of Fargo). Simon McBurney lends his always captivating voice to Sir Francis Chichester who offers some of the best dialogue in the film when describing the perils of the ocean.
The horrific dilemma that faced Crowhurst is heartbreakingly realised and his journey into madness is far more abstract and invigorating than the film’s chirpy first act or saccharine marketing would suggest. At its best the film manages the ethereal uneasiness of the phrase that inspired the title of this film, when Donald Crowhurst wrote it in his log book, all alone in the middle of the sea.
4.5 / 5