The Mercy

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Mercy
"This is a film full of notions about the way dreams shape our personal stories as much as being shaped by them."

Smiling Home Counties families, comfy pullovers and afternoons in the garden, competitions in the Sunday Times, messing about on boats - if you don't know the story behind it, The Mercy sounds like the kind of film that will end with bunting, polite applause and some nice chap getting an OBE. Perhaps, for a little while, that's what Donald Crowhurst imagined his fate would be. The reality was very different, and the strength of James Marsh's film lies in its juxtaposition of these two worlds. Did the sailor lose his mind out there, alone with the sea, or was he more in touch with reality than everybody else?

In the central role, Colin Firth - who summons up a curious resemblance to the real Crowhurst - bridges the gap with real skill. He presents us with an affable middle aged man who runs his own business, adores his wife and kids and loves sailing round the coast of England - not the world's most treacherous waters - but wants to feel that, just once, he has achieved something in life. When he first hears about the newspaper's competition to be the first to sail solo around the world without stopping - or to be the fastest person to sail solo around the world - he seems to genuinely believe that this might be his chance. It fits the narrative of the plucky English hero so well that it's an easy dream to fall for, and this is a film full of notions about the way dreams shape our personal stories as much as being shaped by them.

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Sail south a bit and things start to look different. It's not just the choppiness of the Atlantic, which the Crowhurst we see here handles fairly well. It's that the shortcomings off his hastily made boat become increasingly apparent. He had wanted more time to work on it but that would have meant missing the entry date and his sponsors wouldn't stand for it. As it is, if he turns back he'll lose his company and his family will lose their home. But it's one thing to rely on English pluck in a bicycle race through the Cotswolds or a pie making competition; quite another to pit it against the 60 foot waves of the Southern Ocean. And what seems like a simple solution to this dilemma turns out to be anything but as the fortunes of Crowhurst's fellow competitors place him in an increasingly intolerable position.

This is a tale that could have been told very effectively as a one-hander. Instead, Marsh balances his time between the boat and dear old Blighty, where the sponsors are getting excited and a press agent is trying to drum up stories at every opportunity whilst Crowhurst's wife, played (with the commitment one would expect) by Rachel Weiss, endeavours to damp down her worries and keep a stiff upper lip, dressing nicely for the cameras, trying to keep the children from imagining that things might go wrong. She's afraid of those waves. She has no idea of the terrors her husband is actually facing, no awareness that the great distance opening up between them is more than a matter of miles.

When, towards the end, it becomes apparent just how far off an even keel the sailor has drifted, the film takes a lurch like a boat struck by a freak wave. It is as if polite English society has been struck by such a wave. Shocked, confused by the strange turn of events, people shake their heads, seek calmer waters, carry on. But for the audience, the impact remains.

Reviewed on: 29 Nov 2018
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The story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor, who enters a round the world competition in the Sixties in an unfinished boat and decides to fake his journey to save face and impending bankruptcy.
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Read more The Mercy reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Scott Z Burns

Starring: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Mark Gatiss, Finn Elliot, Andrew Buchan, Jonathan Bailey

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK

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