European films

The Mercy film review: Colin Firth shines as misguided sailor in fact-based drama

British amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst was a dreamer who set off, without adequate training, to sail solo around the world; Firth brings to life his desperate quest and its tragic unravelling as his family looks on helpless

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 7:00am

3/5 stars

In 1968, British amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst aimed to become the first man to sail around the world single-handed when he entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Lacking the necessary seafaring experience, the family man from Devon in southwest England hoped the £5,000 prize money would save his failing business.

The ensuing tragedy, which caused a media sensation at the time, is brought vividly to life in The Mercy, from Oscar-winning director James Marsh (not this reviewer, sadly).

Even before Crowhurst’s trimaran, Teignmouth Electron, has left the Devon coast, an ominous cloud of apprehension enshrouds the film. Crowhurst, as portrayed by Colin Firth, is a hopeless dreamer who leaves his family drowning in debt when he sets sail.

Within weeks, his unfinished vessel is underperforming and veering hundreds of miles off course. Determined not to forfeit, or disappoint his supporters back home, Crowhurst makes a fateful decision that spirals rapidly out of control.

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Rather than focus solely on Crowhurst’s isolation in the watery wilderness, Marsh divides his attention, giving ample screen time to his wife, Clare (Rachel Weisz), and their three children. Their support of Donald’s folly only fuels his growing psychological torment, as he wrestles with conflicting feelings of pride and shame at his failing efforts.

David Thewlis, who appeared in Marsh’s previous film, The Theory of Everything , plays a former crime reporter turned public relations officer who is responsible for turning Crowhurst’s unlikely participation into an underdog tale to grip the nation.

Unwittingly, his enthusiasm plays its own part in the unfolding tragedy, as expectations at home continue to play on Crowhurst’s mind.

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While The Mercy highlights the manipulative power of “alternative facts”, Firth ensures we hold nothing but pity and compassion for this flawed, unhinged mariner. Marsh refuses to pass judgment on Crowhurst, but rather observes his unravelling under the weight of his own desperate decisions – accompanied by a suitably elegiac score, the final offering from the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The Mercy opens on May 10

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