This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race; the first single-handed, round the world (with no stops) yacht race. The race remains deeply controversial as only one yachtsman managed to finish and another, the failing businessman and amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, encountered so many difficulties that he abandoned the competition, falsified reports on his progress and ultimately committed suicide at sea nine months later. It is this story that forms the basis of The Theory of Everything director James Marsh’s film The Mercy, starring Colin Firth as Crowhurst and Rachel Weisz as Clare, his wife and the mother of his children.
Faced with the task of reviewing the film, I was tempted to just pretend I’d watched it and then posted a review on here that was so wildly falsified that my inactivity would become apparent to all before leaving the review incomplete…
I feel it is what Crowhurst would have wanted.
In all seriousness, Crowhurst’s story is actually one I have long been fascinated in – a fascination that was spurred on by Louise Osmond’s excellent 2006 documentary film Deep Water. This is a man who had a pipe dream beyond his abilities but somehow managed to convince others – including financial backers that ensured anything but success would lead to his personal ruin – that his dream could be an achievable reality. In over his head, Crowhurst began to give his backers and his family what he thought they wanted, delivering reports on his seamanship and the optimum speed of his complex, 40-foot trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, so wildly optimistic that he went from the competition’s underdog to the sailor who was hotly tipped to be the race winner and the possibly fastest competitor overall. One by one his fellow competitors dropped out of the race ensuring that, should he finish, his failure would be laid bare for all to see. Faced with such an unbearable prospect that would lead to both financial ruin and widespread humiliation, Crowhurst took his own life entering the depths of the Southern Atlantic Ocean where his body has never been recovered. In the aftermath, the press and those who sought to build him up, swiftly began to knock him down; a story of a man’s foolishness that concluded in the social embarrassment of a mental breakdown and the taboo of suicide being just as good a story for the newspapers as one of a homegrown British success against overwhelming odds.
For me personally, there’s something about these dishonorable and duplicitous figures in British history (I’m a huge nut for all things Cambridge Spies for example) that is more fascinating than your straight up and down traditional heroes and Marsh’s film benefits from a superb central performance from Firth as Crowhurst. Firth is an actor who brings an innate sensitivity and sympathy to the roles he undertakes and this is pivotal for the kind of man Crowhurst was. It’s a tough ask for any performer to convey the desperation and thought processes that anyone endures in a solitary situation, given that you’re essentially alone and acting against no one, but Firth skilfully brings to the fore so much and often with just a look that, when supported by the many tricks that screenwriter Scott Z Burns employs – tricks which ensures that key scenes are placed in a context that feels more populated than it perhaps has a right to be – the audience has an empathetic appreciation towards Crowhurst. You don’t need to find yourself alone in the middle of the ocean to understand what Crowhurst was going through, nor do you need a complex backstory that may explain his motivations. In reality, Crowhurst’s life was beset by disappointment; his mother had longed for a daughter, and dressed him as a girl until the age of seven. His parents invested heavily in a business in India which was destroyed in the riots following partition and the financial problems that followed forced him to leave school early. A subsequent military career was checkered with mysterious indiscretions that saw him forced to leave his commissions in both the RAF and the REME. But none of this really matters to the film, as all you really need to understand here is what it means to put on a brave face each day, telling lies to even those whom you love the most – those who would understand implicitly, if you only had the courage to confess your fears and inadequacies.
Equally Rachel Weisz has the usually unenviable task faced by any actress, that of the somewhat stereotypical role of ‘the little lady waiting at home’. But she invests within this role a quiet, melancholic dignity that matches the poetry of Firth’s performance and lifts it above the cliche. The screenplay understands that these two characters are two sides of the same coin and that the isolation they find themselves in is as much of a prison for one as it is for the other, a captivity borne of being unable to express one’s feelings, hopes and fears. But the key to this success is the fact that film is blessed by two performers who can convey all this in so subtle and heartbreaking a manner. The supporting cast is minimal, talented but respectfully unshowy. Of them all, David Thewlis enjoys his opportunity to play the blunt press agent Rodney Hallworth, a character who appreciates that the story is all and that, if he cannot have the one Crowhurst promised him, then his innate cynicism ensures that he will reap the benefits of the folly of his deception instead. Meanwhile Ken Stott is an avuncular Stanley Best, the caravan entrepreneur who bankrolled Crowhurst’s venture, whilst Simon McBurney briefly appears in one early scene – set at a boat show – as Crowhurst’s hero (and growing bete noire rival), Sir Francis Chichester; the first person to sail single-handed around the world just a year earlier, an accomplishment Crowhurst wanted to match. Only Mark Gatiss irritates as he continues his seemingly personal ambition to appear in virtually every British production going with the (relatively and mercifully small) role of newspaper editor Ronald Hall – though I appreciate this irritation may just be personal to me. There are also several familiar faces in very minor roles – Broadchurch‘s Andrew Buchan and Mr Turner‘s Dorothy Atkinson, to name but two – that leads me to suspect that the cutting room floor contained more of their work.
Director James Marsh delivers arguably his finest fictional narrative cinematic feature, foregoing much of the sentimentality that infected The Theory of Everything to provide instead a steady, professional film that contains a palpable, disconcerting sense of unease and impending sorrow that grows with each passing scene. The majority of homegrown British films – and certainly those that can be considered ‘heritage’ ie period and blessed with good British actors – are wildly optimistic and (flagwavingly) feelgood for seemingly a less cynical time, so it’s unusual to see one whose subject means it must be unstintingly tragic. This bleakness is also apparent in this month’s cinema adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella On Chesil Beach, suggesting a potential new trend for a more melancholic period drama on British film. It’s a tone that is completely right for The Mercy, providing as it does a meditation on the nature of heroism; traditionally, a hero is a man who faces the odds and comes through victorious. Donald Crowhurst was a man who faced the odds despite the certain knowledge that he was doomed to fail not only the challenge but to fail himself. That makes him a hero in my book.
I recommend The Mercy but, if it somehow proves not to be your cup of tea, I’d suggest the aforementioned Deep Water or the forthcoming biopic Crowhurst, helmed by Simon Rumley and produced by Nicolas Roeg, due out later this year.