The Mercy is a fictional account of the true story of amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, played by Colin Firth (The Railway Man, The King’s Speech, A Single Man) and his attempt at the 1968 The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race — a non-stop competition to circumnavigate the world single-handedly for a five-thousand-pound prize. A series of reckless decisions and unfortunate events conspire to upset Crowhurst’s journey, which ends in tragedy.

Intended to add credibility, the words “based on the true story”, can equally cover a multitude of sins or a hollowness in the telling. Despite a sincere effort from a talented cast, The Mercy is a case of Hollywood gloss and one-dimensional writing scuttling the drama.

1968 was a year for heroism: America was dreaming of putting a man on the moon, England had the new frontier of the sea. It’s understandable that a middle-class man like Crowhurst may have wished to contribute to the age; may have wished to prove his mettle to his family, and to himself.

Crowhurst was a competent engineer who invented the Navicater, a radio direction-finding device allowing navigation on the sea. Yet, success eluded him. Entering the Golden Globe in Teignmouth Electron, a trimaran of his own design — and winning — was, perhaps, both a way out of financial difficulties and a tangible chance to grasp elusive success.

Colin Firth gives an impassioned performance as Crowhurst that the simplistic script doesn’t entirely deserve. In his early scenes, he is accomplished — whether he’s enticing buyers with his salesman’s patter, or indulging his children with his nautical plans — and he is never less than sympathetic. In the family scenes, we see him as a loving father and devoted husband.

This makes his decision to enter the race even more ambiguous — there is no apparent driving urge, only the vague motivation that “dreams are the seed of action”. Crowhurst is woefully unprepared for the task, yet his resolve is so strong that he secretly puts his house on the line, effectively forcing him to enter the race.

Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel, Denial, The Lobster) as his wife, Clare, is the stronger character in this narrative. Weisz plays her as an equal, with a wry self-awareness — though she is maddeningly supportive of his ambitions, even at the cost of ruining the family. Where is her frustration at his abandonment?

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Crowhurst's family is the emotional core of the film, however they are not fully explored. (Image credit: © 2016 – STUDIOCANAL; Dean Rogers)

His “dream” leaves her and the children in a near state of poverty, yet this consequence is given only a single line and a small scene at a social security office. Despite being underwritten, Weisz’s Clare is compassionate and spirited, though it would have been preferable to see more of her emotional journey alongside her husband’s.

Scott Z. Burns’s (writer of the frighteningly plausible Contagion, and the disappointingly derivative Side Effects) screenplay is problematic in its by-the-numbers plotting — we never truly understand Crowhurst’s desire to compete in the race, though there is a seminal moment of fear that Firth portrays so well, we begin to believe he is coaxed into something he cannot step away from.

Indeed, it becomes clear that his press agent, Rodney Hallworth — played with cynical opportunism by the ever-brilliant David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Wonder Woman, Kingdom of Heaven), peering owlishly over glasses, or seated at a pub table with a beer — needs this story and convinces Crowhurst the task must be completed.

Crowhurst’s deception in the midst of the race — the psychological crux of his story — is given no time to develop. The family drama unfolding alongside Crowhurst’s journey is also given short shrift. Worst of all, the reportage of Crowhurst’s unbalanced mental state after 243 days at sea is dealt with in a scene or two of him draping himself in seaweed, and an obtuse metaphor about horses.

James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer, The Theory of Everything) directs in a formulaic manner. It is intriguing, with his award-winning documentary roots, that he eschews realism for fictional glamour. From the start, there are issues with pacing, cutting quickly over family characterisation to get the story underway — a shame, as their hasty introduction means they remain arbitrary.

Much opportunity is lost to expand the story into the emotional rather than the prescriptive set pieces onscreen. Once Crowhurst sets out to sea, everything is telegraphed from miles away. There is not a skerrick of tension, even as he combats storms or suffers delusions, and the muted direction means the story putters to a close.

At least it looks good — the production design is effective in conveying the ‘60s, though the pastel colour scheme does feel oddly twee.

At his lowest ebb, facing madness and despair at the consequence of his fabrications, Crowhurst writes in his logbook, “There can only be one perfect beauty, that is the great beauty of truth.” It is ironic, in that this account feels so deliberately contrived. If you want the truth, and a more affecting emotional experience, watch the 2006 documentary Deep Water, and pass this by.

Feature image credit: © 2016 – STUDIOCANAL.

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