The Mercy – Film Review by Lisa Jewell
Director: James Marsh
Stars: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Jonathan Bailey
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
A new addition to the British biopic genre is The Mercy, starring Colin Firth as real life hobbyist sailor Donald Crowhurst. Back in 1968, Crowhurst entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. It was the first round-the-world yacht race and competitors needed to complete it single-handedly and without any stopovers. The film begins as Crowhurst watches legendary sailor Francis Chichester announce the race at a sailing show. Crowhurst is at the event trying to hawk his invention, a navigator for sailors. Clearly, the race has piqued his interest. Within a short period, he has figured out a way to fund the trip with local sponsorship and has decided on a trimaran boat, which has the potential to move much faster than conventional sailboats but is also a less proven type of vessel for racing. His wife Clare (played by Rachel Weisz) is clearly his rock in life and backs her husband’s dream of making his mark on history. Their family life is idyllic – raising three children in a closely knit seaside community.
At this point, the film starts to resemble that British film trope – the bumbling man who digs deep in his convictions in order to beat the odds. Think The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. Or The Full Monty. Or, quite recently, Eddie the Eagle. But if you were expecting this type of feel good, redemptive and light hearted movie, then The Mercy isn’t it. And to be fair, it can’t be it. The real life story brings the film on quite a different voyage – one that has a great deal of soul searching and pathos. It has a very philosophical feel at times too, along the lines of James Marsh’s other biopic The Theory of Everything.
Firth brings stoicism to the part of the flawed Crowhurst. It’s strongly reminiscent of his turn in The King’s Speech and actually made me wonder if it’s a recurrent characterisation he’s happened to do by chance or a reflection of Firth’s own personality. Perhaps it’s not so much of a stretch for him to play ‘Stiff Upper Lip’. There are some evocative scenes while Crowhurst adapts to the isolation on the open Atlantic. The thread that’s connecting him to home seems to grow weaker at the same time as the buzz around his trip is amplified back in England. He’s hailed as the homegrown hero in newspapers but he’s utterly alone in his boat, confessing, “I can’t go on….but I can’t go back.”
The film benefits greatly from the fact that the race was 50 years ago and Crowhurst’s story has – up until now – not been particularly well known outside of yachting folklore. And that’s what keeps you interested until the end – to see how it all turned out for him (so no spoilers here from us!) But as much as I wanted to like this film, I felt it was strangely lacking. It’s not the performances, it’s not the writing….it’s just that it lacks the heartfelt feeling that I thought was going to materialize at some point.
In a way, it’s strange that the film was greenlit in the first place as a major studio production. It struck me as an interesting story rooted in history but more suited to a once off BBC drama on a Sunday night. I thought that The Mercy was going to bring me on a tide of emotion but, truth be told, it could never really do that given its firm anchor to true life events.