Michael Potts| 5/02/2018
Visceral and human, The Mercy is an affecting tale of hubris, desperation and, ultimately, tragedy.
Directed by James Marsh and based on true events, the film follows Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), an amateur English sailor who enters the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968, with the objective of circumnavigating the globe solo, nonstop faster than any person before. Entering the race with dreams of achieving something great, against the misgivings of his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), Donald designs his own boat with the backing of local businessman, Stanley Best (Ken Stott), and publicist Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis). As problems mount, however, Donald becomes more and more uncertain of his task, but is pushed on by the threat of destitution and disgrace. Things go from bad to worse after he begins his voyage, forcing him to lie about the progress of his journey. His deception and fortunes eventually spiral out of his control, leaving him with no way out of his self-made disaster.
Colin Firth delivers a visceral performance as the ill-fated Donald. He thoughtfully plays a man utterly consumed by his own pride, so much that he cannot see the reality that is staring him in the face. With reserve, he is able to deftly and convincingly portray the descent of his character, with every lie he tells himself, his family and the world progressively driving him into a darker and darker corner. Eventually, the obligations he creates for himself, which themselves spawn grand (in some cases, unreasonable) expectation from others, create for him an impossible dilemma: he cannot continue his race, but nor can he return home. Weisz as Clare provides Donald’s foil with a similarly strong performance. Her character is perhaps the only one able to see and feel the significance of the true dangers of Donald’s undertaking, and she is able to maintain a natural balance between loving support and clear-eyed concern.
The Mercy’s greatest visual asset is the vast ocean upon which around half of the film takes place. There are some lovely shots of great deep blue expanses, with a brief storm sequence which demonstrates the power of the seas. This setting is used to generally good effect to create a sense of isolation for Donald, as well, with the film chronicling the decline of his psyche.
What can be argued to hold the film back in some respects is its split focus. Once Donald sets out to sea, the story divides between his exploits and what is happening back on the home front with Clare and the children, as well as with Hallworth and the media machine. In having done this, the narrative becomes more fulsome, but at the same time loses some depth. This comment applies less to the character of Donald than it does to the rest of the cast and story. As good as Weisz is, Clare’s character is only seen in snippets. There is much to commend in her role, but it is one with a ceiling.
Perhaps more open to criticism is how Hallworth’s character is used as the focal point for a critique of media culture. Portrayed as unscrupulous at times, it is nonetheless odd when the pressure to perform which he placed on Donald is attributed to the press more broadly when they are never shown to do anything but report on the facts they knew (albeit colourfully). If the film was seeking to make this point, more could have been gained by devoting additional time to the matter. Of course, this would have necessitated stripping screen time from the protagonist, which in the circumstances would have done more harm than good, so to some extent it can be said the film bit off slightly more than it could chew.
The Mercy is thoughtful and reserved, with the lead actors giving performances that are quite the treat. Like its protagonist it can’t quite do everything it sets out to, which stops it from achieving its full potential.