On paper, Donald Crowhurst is a perfect person to base a film around. A man whose misfire of an attempt to compete in the 1963 “Sunday Times Golden Globe Race,” leading to his apparent madness and disappearance, is a fascinating story that would be a ripe project for an actor to take on. The film adaptation, The Mercy, is helmed by director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything). Unfortunately, it’s a thoroughly uneven and bland biopic despite being led by Colin Firth who delivers one of the best performances of his career.
The film has the financially troubled inventor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) deciding to enter the “Sunday Times Golden Globe Race,” an around the world sailing competition with a big cash prize, despite being a merely adequate casual sailor. With the cautious support of his wife Clare (an incredibly under-utilised Rachel Weisz), Crowhurst assembles his ship and sets sail for an around the world trip, however, it’s not long until his inexperience catches up to him and it’s abundantly clear that he won’t be able to make it far at all. However, seeing as he has too much money/pride on the line, he decides to go radio silent, creating the illusion that he is making quick progress, despite remaining somewhat dormant. He starts writing diary entries showing his progressive fall into insanity.
The plot line sounds riveting, and while the real-life story is, the film adaption is unfortunately watered down by James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns, making it feel like a run-of-the-mill, high-budgeted British Oscar Bait film. Moreover, the formulaic nature of the film can also be ascribed to the portrayal of Crowhurst in the first act of the film. Initially, it is evident he is not only financially struggling, but also mentally unfulfilled. However, this dissatisfaction with life is ignored for the next 30-40 minutes of the film , instead being portrayed as an eccentric yet brilliant family man, suggesting to the audience that he is to be regarded as charismatic and whimsical. This would be fine if the film didn’t seem to ignore his obviously complicated mental state, it just feels uneven.
The film only begins to truly focus on his mental wellbeing when everything physically goes wrong. On one hand, it makes sense for his mental state to become a greater focus when everything goes awry. However, by previously ignoring his insecurities and fragile mental state, the sudden shift in tone feels artificial and unearned (though likely intentional, it was a misguided choice in my mind.)
However, the film is at its best once everything goes wrong for Crowhurst. Eric Gautier’s chaotic yet controlled handheld cinematography captures how a small boat feels and moves like, making for some effectively claustrophobic and disorientating moments. Crowhurst’s descent into madness makes for an unusually open and emotionally volatile performance from the often reserved Colin Firth- resulting in some of his finest acting.
There is definitely an audience for this film- fans of Colin Firth’s work and typical British weepies will find a lot to enjoy. However aside from an amazing performance from Colin Firth, the effectively disorientating cinematography and some effective moments, it’s a hard film to recommend to those who aren’t already interested.