The quest for fame and fortune is an easy path to a tragic downfall. The Mercy is the true story of Donald Crowhurst, a dedicated family man who was crushed by the weight of his ambitions. He endeavored to sail around the world solo. A daredevil feat for an experienced mariner, Crowhurst was completely out of his league. His pursuit of a dream led to a rabbit hole of deception and dire consequences.
The Mercy opens in 1968 Teignmouth, England. Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) is a struggling businessman with a love for sailing. The Sunday Times newspaper announces a grand competition. The Golden Globe race offered the titanic sum of five thousand pounds sterling to the fastest sailor who could circumnavigate the earth single-handedly. Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who’d never left English waters, was convinced he could do it. All he needed was modern technology and guts to conquer the sea. His wife, Clare (Rachel Weisz), had deep misgivings, but supported him fully.
Crowhurst’s plans are troubled from the start. He goes over budget and behind schedule building his boat, a trimaran dubbed the Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst is forced to leverage his business and home. As the other contestants get under way, Crowhurst realizes the boat is not ready. But there was too much at stake to quit. On October 31st 1968, Donald Crowhurst embarked on the race with much fanfare. His publicist (David Thewlis) regaling the British press with incredible progress. Clare waiting with their children for his triumphant return. Donald Crowhurst masked his failure with elaborate lies; the difficulties of the trip and tremendous guilt wreaking havoc on his psychological state.
The Mercy is a character study on two fronts. Director James Marsh (Shadow Dancer, The Theory of Everything) portrays Donald Crowhurst as a man unable to accept failure. He knew from the beginning how unprepared he was for such a dangerous voyage. The limelight, financial risk, and adoration of his children overcame reason. Clare Crowhurst was also ensnared by her husband’s hubris. Her steadfast love fostered conviction. She endured months of poverty and loneliness with diligence. Donald Crowhurst could not face her disappointment. The Mercy is a cautionary tale of a family destroyed by blind faith.
Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz are fantastic as usual. Firth excels at playing subtle characters. Donald Crowhurst was not a bombastic man. We watch as his confidence turns to regret, deception, and eventual madness. Firth keeps a base of sad dignity throughout. Clare Crowhurst had to smile for the cameras, fend off the press, and take care of her children. Rachel Weisz puts on a brave face, but as time passes, struggles mightily to keep her family afloat. Her performance is nuanced and heartbreaking.
My issues with the film are purely technical. The Mercy needed to show more of Crowhurst’s difficulties at sea. The initial sailing scenes are engaging, but wane considerably by the final act. James Marsh turns his attention to Crowhurst’s mental decline. We see Colin Firth mostly in the boat’s cabin. It’s clearly evident they’re filming on a set. What started as shaky and unsteady with water everywhere, turns into a false calm for dramatic purposes. The ocean is the beast that cannot be tamed. Marsh loses sight of the true antagonist, but does give Donald Crowhurst his solemn dues. The Mercy is a production of BBC Films and distributed by StudioCanal.