Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer
Director James Marsh has become known for tales of men single-handedly attempting extraordinary things. His documentary Man on Wire dealt with Phillippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, while The Theory of Everything handled, often inexpertly, Stephen Hawking’s life and times. His latest biographical drama is The Mercy, a sea-faring tale in the manner of Kon-Tiki and All is Lost, in a man pits himself against the sea and, at times, are found wanting.
The Mercy tells the true tale of Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), a weekend sailor and inventor of navigational equipment who, in 1968, decides to join the “Golden Globe race” in an attempt to become the first man to navigate the globe single-handed, without setting foot on land. Crowhurst is ably supported by his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), and his three children, who believe that their father can do anything. His attempt catches the attention of a publicist (David Thewlis), who sees a big payday in the story of an inexperienced sailor attempting to the world. Even before Crowhurst sets out, his designs for his boat run into problems, resulting in him eventually signing over his house and inventions to his partner, a local businessman, in exchange for more financing. When he does finally set out, it’s late in the year, and he’s almost immediately faced with obstacles both physical and mental, about which he has to make an immediate and potentially disastrous decision.
The Mercy is driven primarily on the strength of Colin Firth’s dedicated performance as Crowhurst, backed by Rachel Weisz in a relatively thankless role of the patient wife. One does wonder how anyone could be convinced that a man who had literally never been on the sea before could successfully navigate the entire world singlehanded, but there is a sense of wide-eyed optimism in Firth’s performance that somewhat avoids making this seem too outlandish. Firth’s performance in particular is better than the film itself, which shifts between a gung-ho optimism and cynicism that fail to mesh into something coherent.
Maybe The Mercy is odd because the story is odd by its very nature. Crowhurst’s relentless pursuit of his dreams threatens to derail his family, his livelihood, and even his life, all at the expense of something that is just misguided from the start. The film attempts to balance this with the rapaciousness of the press and the powers-that-be that want a scrappy underdog story of succeeding against the odds, and so push Crowhurst into more than he can handle. But this element of the narrative comes off as perfunctory because the film tacitly wants the same story. It wants Donald to succeed, and it wants not to show how bad faith actors shoved this man into a dangerous position, but how he manages to transcend both them and his own limitations. That the actual history doesn’t fit into that narrative is something that the film can’t quite deal with, resulting in a tonal mish-mash that won’t ever cohere.
Marsh is a good filmmaker, but he has a tendency to suddenly cut off scenes just as they’re getting going, resulting in a feeling of incompleteness, like a portion of each scene has been left on the cutting room floor. He also confuses the timeline by intercutting between the past and the present of the narrative without much clear purpose. When the tonal shifts do hit, they’re shocking in their bluntness, partially due to a failure in establishing what the film’s thematics are. It takes a few minutes to even understand some of Crowhurst’s decisions, by which point the film has moved on.
The Mercy is a limited pleasure, unfortunately, given the cast, the subject, and the director. It’s trying to be three different films in three different genres, all of them attempting to follow the same narrative at the same time. It’s a shame really, because when the film does come to its crux and finally voices its central argument, it indicates that there’s a lot more behind this idea than what’s actually on the screen. But in the end, The Mercy just doesn’t work.
Author: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer
Lauren is a film critic, writer, editor, and angry feminist, with a Masters in Film Studies from NYU and a PhD in making men mad on Twitter.