THE MERCY is the latest in a long line of treatments of the infamous 1968/69 round the world yacht race called The Golden Globe. It captures the imagination because it's a pure challenge between man and the elements - to sail a boat with rudimentary equipment around the world single-handed over many months - a test both of the boat and man's ability to deal with extreme isolation and peril. I have long been fascinated by the type of people who are driven to face such challenges - whether climbing mountains above the "death zone" - or sailing into peril. And the Golden Globe, more than other races, epitomises the strange pull on a certain type of man to prove himself. It attracted both professional sailors and rank amateurs - and that too is one of its attractions. The idea that anyone could simply get into a boat and sail around the world appeals to a sense of old-fashioned adventure.
THE MERCY focuses on just one of the nine entrants to the Golden Globe race - the most notorious - Donald Crowhurst. It may well be best to watch it knowing absolutely nothing about him, but as the story is going to 50 years old next year, I'm going to go ahead and discuss its broad outlines in order to review the film. Crowhurst was a talented electronic engineer and weekend sailor in coastal waters. But he was struggling with his business, and was reliant on an investment from local entrepreneur Stanley Best to stay afloat. Crowhurst saw entering the race as a chance to gain the kind of fame and fortune that Sir Francis Chichester had earned when he went round the world with just one stop the year before. If he could prove the value of his pioneering electronic gadgets on board a famous voyage, regardless of winning, Crowhurst would be set up for life. But, because he was reliant on yet more sponsorship from Best to build his boat, if he failed to sail, or dropped out early, he would lose his house, boat and business. The stakes could not, therefore, have been higher.
The film shows Crowhurst in a sympathetic light - a charismatic family man with real smarts - but out of his depth in preparing for such a voyage against a very tight deadline. The boatbuilders can't always get first choice materials, his design is untested, and he hasn't got the time to build the electronics that should make a trimaran able to right itself when capsized (it's chief safety problem). Sponsors are hard to come by, but he does get recording equipment from the BBC and instructions to send back updates to his rapacious press agent. Money is tight. The stress builds, and he spends much of his final night before sailing in tears. The omens are bad - the champagne bottle won't crack against the hull, the test voyage takes two weeks rather than three days, and even when he sets sail on the race, he has to tow back to sort out his sails.
It's very clear from early on that he neither the open water sailing experience nor a suitable boat for the voyage. The early parts of the film show him to be very honest and logical in laying out the problems he has to solve. As he slips down the coast of Portugal and onto Africa his speeds are underwhelming and he spends his time manually bailing out the hulls. At some point he decides to make a simple deception - and fakes a speed record. But that does't yet mean that he's decide to fake the entire voyage. The film shows beautifully the slow slipping into fakery. But there's a moment when he takes the plunge - when he starts genuinely faking his progress, using enigmatic radio messages and refusing to give his precise bearings. At this point, though, it's a logical reaction to desperation. He wants to give us, but is in an invidious financial position. Another problem for Crowhurst, as the film so clearly shows, is that slight fakery is exacerbated by his press agent Ronald Hallworth - a man with shady ethics who takes Crowhurst's deliberately vague reports and exaggerates and firms them up with fake accuracy. This puts Crowhurst in as much of a bind as his financial problems, because he can’t very well drop out of the race in a position on the map where he’s not meant to be anywhere near! And so the film shows a man under insupportable pressure decide to fake his voyage, and because this means complete radio silence, slip into madness. I’ll say no more here, although I have written my thoughts on how this is handled below the episode notes for those who are interested.
THE MERCY succeeds because of the central performance of Colin Firth (THE KINGSMEN)- showing a range and nuance that makes this perhaps his finest performance since A SINGLE MAN. It’s a sympathetic but harrowing portrait of a good, intelligent and earnest man who desperately needs to speak to his wife in private and seek solace and advice but cannot. Yes he told a lie, but to save his family from ruin, and in the absence of any emotional support. And who then sails for months, in isolation, and becomes unmoored from reality. It’s also, despite it’s specific context, a deeply relatable story about what loneliness and stress can do to one. The film also benefits from being shot on the open sea, and on celluloid - an authenticity that’s hard to replicate in a tank - and than creates one or two really quite beautiful images. By contrast, when it comes to the land-based scenes, director James Marsh (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) seems to get through them in a rather workmanlike manner.
Because this is Firth’s film - rightly so - those cast in smaller roles are little more than quickly essayed character traits. Rachel Weisz (THE LOBSTER) is merely there to be deeply sympathetic as Crowhurst’s supportive wife Clare, unwilling to tell him not to proceed because she wants to support his dreams, even if it means ending up on the dole and alone. Clare is also given a rather bombastic final scene which, in its (bizarre, to my mind), condemnation of the press, felt anachronistic, and certainly didn’t happen. David Thewlis is mono-dimensionally creepy as the press agent Hallworth. And we get a cameo from Simon McBurney as Sir Francis Chichester, but he’s bizarrely unused as the film develops even though his reaction to Crowhurst’s voyage was one of the more interesting.
The film suffers from a lack of context. Crowhurst’s struggles are easier to understand and sympathise with when you realise how far the other sailors suffered from stress and isolation - the story of Moitessier in particular shows how easy it is to become unmoored. And although unprepared, he was by far not the most amateur of the sailors - that honour goes to Chay Blyth who literally had to learn to sail as he went. But perhaps that would’ve taken too much time to explore? What the screenwriter, Scott Z Burns (THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM), could’ve done quickly and easily was introduce a scene where we learn that both the pumping hose and the box of spare parts was left onshore by mistake, making Crowhurst’s voyage harder to sustain. I also feel that more time could’ve been spent on establishing Crowhurst’s philosophy of life as a kind of game before the race, to help give content to the 25,000 words of Philosophy written in his logbooks at sea. Because even as he became unmoored, there was a through line from earlier beliefs, and again that speaks to his intelligence.
Overall, I did enjoy the film, mostly for Firth’s performance, and because even when done narrowly, it’s a fascinating tale. I suspect that for people who truly want to understand the psychology of not just Crowhurst, but all the men who took part in the race, and its dramatic emotional consequences, the 2006 documentary, DEEP WATER, reviewed here, will remain the first port of call. I can also heartily recommend reading The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by the Sunday Times journalists Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. This was published immediately after the race, in 1970, and benefited from the authors being able to comb over the log books and other documents that came off Crowhurst's boat, as well as interviewing those involved in the race. I found it to be an incredibly well researched and fair-minded book, deeply sympathetic to Crowhurst and quoting liberally from his writings. The makers of this film seem to disagree, which I find odd. Another valuable book is Chris Eakin's A Race Too Far. This covers the race in its entirety, looking at all the participants. It therefore goes into less depth on any one of them, and quotes liberally from the Tomalin and Hall book. It was published just last year and therefore can interview participants and their families.
THE MERCY has a running time of 101 minutes and is rated 12A in the UK for infrequent strong language. It will be released in Portugal on November 23rd, in the Netherlands on December 14th, in Australia on February 8th, in the UK on February 9th, in Poland on March 2nd, in France on March 7th, in New Zealand on March 8th and in Germany on March 29th.