FILM REVIEW: The Mercy

I waited a long time for The Mercy.

I knew it was being filmed back in 2015 in South Devon, where I grew up, and, as with many from the region, I have been fascinated by the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst for many years.

       This is a serious work.

It is a serious film about serious themes, and the remarkable detail and historical accuracy suggest that director James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns took the project very seriously indeed. Further credibility is offered by the pairing of Colin Firth as Crowhurst and Rachel Weisz as his wife, Clare, and the respect shown to the film’s setting, and the people involved.

The Mercy is a story of a man who set out to prove himself – to his family and to himself – by attempting to become the fastest man to sail, single-handed, around the world without stopping. When the attempt failed, he made an agonising decision to protect his family by faking the details of his voyage in a brazen attempt to fool the world.

All he had to do was return to the cheering crowds in England.

If you do not wish to know what happened next, do not read on …

SPOILER ALERT

The story has been told before…

For years, the two primary sources of information were a remarkably thorough 1970 book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, and the superb 2006 documentary film Deep Water. For those who have not yet seen Crowhurst, last year’s well-received drama directed by Simon Rumley, which boasted a Nicholas Roeg production but lacked the star quality of The Mercy, this latest account of the Crowhurst story offers another powerful, and very entertaining, introduction.

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The Mercy portrays Crowhurst as he probably was: a brave and quietly passionate man whose idealism fitted perfectly with a 1960s enthusiasm for ground-breaking achievements. He decided to compete in the Sunday Times Golden Globe race in the wake of Francis Chichester’s success in becoming the first man to sail single-handed around the world (albeit with one stop), and his voyage ended the same month that Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. The eventual winner of the race, Robin Knox-Johnston, was a flag-waving adventurer whose primary objective was to stop his only serious rival, Bernard Moitessier, from claiming the prize for France. By contrast, Donald Crowhurst was a humble family man who entered the race partly to improve his family’s financial position, but also through a sense of insecurity at having accomplished little in his life. Unlike Knox-Johnston, he was a weekend sailor whose abilities and equipment were, in the stressful, rushed run-up to his departure, totally inadequate in meeting the challenge he chose to undertake.

Alone at sea in his trimaran, The Teignmouth Electron, Crowhurst was tortured with the knowledge that the sponsorship deal he had signed with businessman Stanley Best meant financial ruin for his family if he pulled out of the race. With the Electron in dreadful shape, and no possibility of completing the race or pulling out, he made the ‘bloody awful decision’ to radio in false, in some cases, incredible, reports of his progress, with the intention of convincing the world that he really was sailing around the world. In reality, he was simply waiting for the right time to turn around and head for home.

Meanwhile, back in England, Crowhurst’s primary cheerleader, the roguish journalist, Rodney Hallworth, was happy to report on his man’s startling achievements at sea. The credibility of Crowhurst’s claims was questioned, as was his rather vague descriptions of his position (‘off Brazil’ was one example) but this did not stop Hallworth from embracing the Boy’s Own adventure quality of the story that had won him over in the first place, and he was happy to embellish Crowhurst’s successes even further in his news reports.

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In the event, Knox-Johnston won the race and Crowhurst hoped to come in third, behind Nigel Tetley. When Tetley capsized, Crowhurst was left with the sole option of coming in second. Realising that his fake log book entries would never withstand the level of scrutiny and approval needed to justify a second place finish, he apparently descended into a mental breakdown, with his final entries suggesting days of psychological torment. The boat was discovered but Crowhurst was not.

Part of the enduring fascination with the story is the fact that there is, and can never really be, a definitive account of all of Crowhurst’s activities aboard the boat after he left Teignmouth in October 1968. Writers and filmmakers have pieced together the events from Crowhurst’s audio recordings, the two log books that were found – one real and one fake – and an eyewitness account of a man who spoke to, and assisted, Crowhurst on his one stop in Argentina. For this reason, speculation is unavoidable. Tomalin and Hall, for example, in their 1970 book, said they could not rule out the possibility that Crowhurst’s mental breakdown was accelerated by a contaminated supply of tea.

However, this uncertainty allows a filmmaker considerable artistic leeway in interpreting scenes of total and utter loneliness. We can only imagine how Crowhurst coped with each of the disasters that, one by one, destroyed his attempt to sail around the world. In The Mercy, his ill-fated attempt at fixing the buoyancy bag was clearly, at least for director and star, a harrowing experience.

Filming Crowhurst’s descent into a world of turmoil would no doubt have proved one of the bigger challenges, particularly given that the implosion was evident only in his private thoughts and in the incoherent reflections captured in the log book. In this sense, it was far easier for the makers of Deep Water (in which Crowhurst was voiced by Simon Russell Beale) to chronicle this most intense aspect of the story. Director Marsh does not dwell on Crowhurst’s philosophical ramblings about ‘cosmic beings’ but it might have been useful to make a stronger link between his comments on the ‘sin of concealment’ and his very last entry, in which he claimed, ‘it is finished … it is finished … it is the mercy.’ His reference to the games played by God and the Devil might have proved more insightful had his comment that future games should played by rules determined by his family been included. This would certainly have been relevant, as the fate of Crowhurst’s family was clearly the most pressing issue in his mind throughout the nightmare.

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In other instances in the film, Crowhurst’s breakdown is portrayed powerfully and stylishly. Firth hears voices; he witnesses the unexpected arrival of a horse stalking noisily across the deck; he radios in one last report when the receiver is unplugged, and he sees his wife sitting opposite him as he composes his final log entry. Since the Teignmouth Electron was found, drifting in the mid-Atlantic in July 1969, it has been assumed that Crowhurst took his own life, but his body has never been found and, once again, no-one knows what really happened. In this instance, Marsh makes no attempt to offer a definitive portrayal of the events: the last time we see Firth as Donald Crowhurst, he utters the line, ‘it is the mercy’ as he looks to the sky.

And it is finished.

All of these scenes may have been physically and emotionally draining to complete, even for an actor of Colin Firth’s abilities and stature. But Firth – twenty years older than Crowhurst – handles the challenges superbly, conveying the heroism and vulnerability that define the character. Rachel Weisz is convincing as the wife whose day-by-day ordeal of terror eventually boils over into a rage at the country’s press for their celebration, and later, vilification, of her husband. David Thewlis conveys admirably the cynical opportunism of Rodney Hallworth, while an unusually round Ken Stott is solid as the enigmatic Stanley Best. The three actors filling the demanding roles of Crowhurst’s children are also excellent.

One of the biggest strengths of the film is the uncompromising commitment to historical accuracy, from the hairdos and clothes to Crowhurst’s remarks on psychological ‘stability’ in a television interview. This is a film in which the characters, at the most crucial moments, seem to say almost exactly what their real-life counterparts said when those events took place. There are no embarrassing attempts to re-write history to make the late 1960s more relatable to a modern audience. When Firth sets sail from Teignmouth in a sweater and tie, with Shaldon in the background, it is impossible to see how Marsh could have brought us any closer to actually being there in 1968.

The film is stunning in other ways. Marsh competes admirably with the makers of Deep Water in his visual presentation of the story, and The Mercy is unique if only for offering a magnificent portrait of the seaside town of Teignmouth. Film fans may feel that the town has changed little since Norman Wisdom’s Press for Time was filmed there in 1966, but for the purposes of The Mercy, this is of course a very good thing. The presence of Firth and Weisz will guarantee the film an audience, but for many locals, the town of Teignmouth is the film’s true star. Refreshingly, the work is not overloaded with incidental music and Marsh is content to allow the sound of water and seagulls to convey uncertainty and tension, particularly during the uncomfortable scene in which Crowhurst waves goodbye to his family.

Firth’s likeability only facilitates the heroic portrayal of Crowhurst, but a sympathetic portrait of this man was in any case unavoidable. Viewers are still free to draw their own conclusions on Donald Crowhurst. For anyone believing him reckless and incompetent, there will be many more who credit his bravery and quick thinking. The completion of the two log books and the many hours he spent strategizing and maintaining his lie, surely indicate some form of intelligence, while his lengthy battle to remain afloat in a trimaran that was falling apart must say something of his modest abilities as a sailor. The fact that he lived these painful experiences, alone at sea, for eight months, is yet another indication of a strong mind.

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But perhaps The Mercy will open doors to a story that is much bigger than Donald Crowhurst, as the film is clearly about far more than the tragedy of one man’s life, or the fragility of one man’s psychology. The quick-witted, schoolmasterish Knox-Johnston, who donated his entire cash prize to the Crowhurst family, is still sailing in his seventies, but the Golden Globe race may have taken its toll on the lives and mental health of others who competed. Bernard Moitessier, during the race itself, reached an epiphany on his way to winning second place, and opted to turn his boat around to continue sailing around the world. The satisfaction of being alone, at peace, and at sea proved preferable to the screams of adoring crowds. Nigel Tetley, who capsized under the needless pressure of Crowhurst’s (fictional) pursuit, struggled to fund the completion of a new boat and was found hanging from a tree several years later, having expired in a fatal sadomasochistic exercise. Chay Blyth has recalled hallucinating his way through a conversation with Bing Crosby when the singer appeared unexpectedly to assist him with one of the nightmarish sailing malfunctions that forced him out of the race early on.

It ought to be acknowledged that some will find The Mercy overwhelmingly bleak and painfully sad but this is surely the film that James Marsh intended to make. In a film in which comic relief is plainly unthinkable, it seems logical that he chose to omit Crowhurst’s drunken reflections on the Kraken, for example, in one of his more bizarre audio recordings. I saw The Mercy with a young lady who claimed that the experience would stay with her for some time, and although I was pleased that the film made a big impact on her, she added that she was uncertain about what to learn from it. I am uncertain about that also, but the demands of that question stretch far beyond the film and out into the story itself.

Donald Crowhurst’s story is one in which remarkable heroism collided tragically with human frailty and human error. It is very much a story of being human, and, as The Mercy demonstrates, it remains utterly compelling for those who knew the story beforehand, and for those who did not. It is unsurprising that Crowhurst came to see his experience as a metaphor for life itself, reflecting that humans begin their journeys unprepared and then do the best they can, and eventually realise that the mistakes of the past cannot be corrected. It is tragic that he was unable to advance to what is surely the next logical phase … the need to keep going.

The fact that either of us was provoked into thoughts, or a discussion, of these and other themes is perhaps testament to the film’s success in capturing the beauty and the horror of this most powerful tale.

The final verdict … Definitely worth waiting for.

It is subtle.

It is brilliant.

It is The Mercy.

4-out-of-5

Review by James Heath

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