For me, the closest comparison to The Mercy is Everest. Colin Firth, in his strongest performance since The King’s Speech, plays the tragic role of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who took to the seas to circumnavigate the globe.
When watching The Mercy, there is only sadness in his sincere intentions combined with a gung-ho attitude. He could be seen as every man who has a dream that’s slightly outside of the range of normal. To climb the tallest peaks. To swim in the deepest ocean. To meet, face-to-face, a dangerous predator. These ambitions are not impossible, and people are more than capable of achieving them, but they are much more than a single year of commitment. The Mercy reveals a man who dreams big without the necessary skills to succeed.
It is the late 1960’s and we are placed in the picturesque harbour town of Teignmouth, Devon. Crowhurst (Firth) is a lucky man, with an adoring wife (Rachel Weisz) and three wonderful children who hang on his every word. He has inventions to his name and fought in the war, and as Mrs Crowhurst points out, surely he has nothing more to prove. But, inspired by a challenge set by The Sunday Times, Crowhurst spies his ticket to success: To race around the world, without stopping, and win £5000. Very quickly, he is locked into contracts for money he doesn’t have and bets the horse and the cart on the endeavour. Everything hangs in the balance when he sets off on 31st October 1968. Reality can be cruel and Crowhurst has neither the vessel nor stamina to see the journey through. If he returned, he would go back to “ruin” but if he continues, there’s a very likely chance he’ll die. He’s past cognitive dissonance; he is deeply entrenched in the pits of despair.
At this time of year, in the UK, we are greeted with a barrage of films that are intended to reap awards at ceremonies across the world. The Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread all staggered their releases to drop during this particular period in the cinematic calendar. It’s why, frustratingly, The Shape of Water and Lady Bird hits us on the same weekend. The Mercy feels like an award-contender that didn’t garner any nominations. In fact, there has been little buzz at all considering its stellar cast and pertinent story. But don’t be fooled – The Mercy is far stronger than you would expect. Between the two-hander of Firth and Weisz delivering complex and heart-breaking performances, The Mercy seems to knowingly play up to the stuffy, British drama cliché before pulling the rug from under your feet. At first, The Mercy is a middle-class family story, with sunny days and green fields as its backdrop. But, as soon as Crowhurst sets off, the tone shifts. Knowing the truth, it is an upsetting escalation as we see the amateur yachtsman commit further to his plan and, inevitably, pull the mast and float out into the Atlantic Ocean. But if you don’t know the outcome, it adds another dimension as you sit dumbfounded at the audacity of his grand plans and are hooked anticipating how this fascinating set-up plays out. It’s the heroic underdog story crashing into the brutality of the force of nature.
The Mercy, interestingly, toys with bold, relevant themes in an era where British gumption and powering-through seems to be the primary purpose of the current Conservative government. Crowhurst, justifying why he needs to embark on this voyage, could easily claim he was “taking back control” of his life, as he claims how unhappy he is with his lack of achievement. The press also receive a beating in the guise of Crowhurst’s agent, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), a duplicitous man who seems more intent on making an international story rather than considering the welfare of Crowhurst. No scenic views will mute his clear culpability in the outcome. Crucially, the production took place in 2015, and any link to Brexit is clearly coincidence. But nevertheless, a man prepared to lose everything to make his point, and even cheat his way to the finish line, contains an arrogance that we have seen too often since June 2016.
This is a thoroughly riveting and powerful true story, bolstered by carefully judged and quietly powerful performances. The Mercy is an unexpected success, with a perfect blend of a personal family drama with the psychological unravelling of a flawed man.
This was originally published for Culturefly.co.uk in February 2018