Peter Sheehan, Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
THE MERCY. Starring: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, and David Thewlis. Also, Ken Stott. Directed by James Marsh. Rated M (Coarse language). 102 min.
This British biographical drama is based on a script written by Scott Z. Burns after he saw the historical documentary directed in 2006 by Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond, titled ‘Deep Water’. Both that documentary and this film depicts the failed attempt by amateur sailor, Donald Crowhurst, to circumnavigate the world by sailing around it.
Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) competed in the 1968-1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe, Around The World Yacht Race, and wanted to be the first person in history to sail around the globe solo without stopping - ‘blessed by the size of the sea’, as he said. Aware of risk, he leaves his wife and three children and sets off in a boat that was clearly not seaworthy enough for the journey, and to support his venture, he promised to give everything he had away, if he didn’t finish. He never finished his journey, and his abandoned trimaran, the ‘Teignmouth Electron’, was found drifting in the Atlantic more than seven months after he set off. Crowhurst’s last words written in his logbook were: ‘It is the Mercy’, suggesting he anticipated release from mental torment.
Crowhurst’s body has never been found. Instead of the heroic tale that might have been told, this is an immensely sad and tragic story of a man who put notoriety and fame first, and wanted desperately to prove his worth to those who knew him, especially his family - but couldn’t. His desire for fame cost him his treasured love of his family. It is known that Crowhurst lied about his position in the race; he lied to his wife by radio from his boat; and his press agent back in Devon, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), falsified his race position. Crowhurst himself filed fake journey logs to chart his boat’s fictional progress, and he made landfall in Argentina, breaking the rules of the race. Rather than facing defeat, Crowhurst is presumed to have taken his own life.
The movie takes a more inquisitive look at events, and it captures compellingly Crowhurst’s tragic downward path to mental instability, especially when he begins to hallucinate. Did he slip and fall overboard? Did he take his own life? Or did he find his way to land to disappear from the sight of others for the rest of his life? The film movingly, allows for the plausibility of different scenarios, accentuating, dramatically, the mystery component of Crowhurst’s disappearance.
The acting is very impressive, and the cinematography is excellent. Firth gives a very convincing, and sensitive portrayal of Crowhurst’s ambition and his subsequent mental decline. He shows courage, ingenuity and dignity, and combines these traits with naivety, and irresponsibility. The story is a tragic tale of misjudgement in the pursuit of honour and self-glories. Crowhurst’s loving wife, Clare, is captured very movingly and effectively by Rachel Weisz. The film has her letting her husband pursue his dreams, even though she has serious doubts about his capacity to realise them. And never at any time does the film undermine the importance of family togetherness, under stress.
The movie saturates itself with unanswered questions. It gives no final answer to them, and nobody knows what really happened to Crowhurst, and it is clearly directed by James Marsh with modern dilemmas in mind. When ‘fake news’ is manufactured, as it was by Crowhurst and his press agent, the film highlights the issue of what consequences are thereby created. In this and other ways, the film’s dilemmas have significant contemporary, social and political relevance.
This movie is uncomfortable viewing, but also a very compelling one. It confronts the viewer with the question of ‘how one behaves, mentally and physically, after the knowledge of having made a serious mistake?’ Who shares in the recovery process? And what price does the pursuit of false information create for oneself, and for others (especially the media) complicit in the deceit? In the film, the descent of Crowhurst into possible madness is modestly restrained, but the issues his predicament raises swirl around unanswered in a context of shrouded mystery. This is not a movie that provides simple answers, or moral certainty, and it drifts intentionally into difficult moral waters that can sometimes surround ambiguous events. It is a movie that deserves to be seen.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
StudioCanal Pty. Ltd.
Released 8 March 2018