Review: The Mercy (film, 2018)

Director: James Marsh
1:41 hours
4 stars

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph and their Readers’ Offer, I was fortunate enough to attend a preview of Jamie Marsh’s new film, The Mercy – a portrayal of Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated entry into the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. The race, launched by the Sunday Times in 1968 aimed to encourage competition in the already sought-after goal of achieving the first solo non-stop circumnavigation of the planet.

The evening’s screening was made all the more special as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (the eventual winner of the race) was on hand for an interview and audience questions afterwards. The Studiocanal production stars Colin Firth (Donald Crowhurst), Rachel Weisz (Clare Crowhurst), David Thewlis (Rodney Hallworth, Donald’s press agent), and Mark Gatiss (Ronald Hall, Sunday Times correspondent), as well as other well known British actors. To Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s pique a younger him doesn’t feature in the film, nor is he played by Johnny Depp – his personal choice for the role we’re told.

Filmed in Teignmouth and off the UK coast, the film covers the tragic tale of Donald, an amateur sailor, drawn into the race with personal visions of being the fastest circumnavigator is his new Arthur Piver designed trimaran (multihulls were unknown in circumnavigations at the time). The pressure that Donald was put under due to financial commitments, the unpreparedness of his boat and his delayed departure all compounded his position, backing him into a corner that led to his eventual suicide having spent eight months alone at sea and after an incredible attempt to falsify a successful circumnavigation while actually sailing off the coast of Argentina.

A screenplay of this nature faces the obvious temptations of wanting to over-dramatise, elaborate, or amend the story to better suit the format and audience expectation. The film resists this temptation well and stays true to the events of the time. Colin Firth does a wonderfully subtle and convincing job of drawing the audience into Donald’s gradual mental collapse. Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of Clare conveys a wife and mother’s delicate balance between a personal fear of losing one’s partner and all the inner turmoil that it brings, against the need to remain confident and strong for her children.

Artistically the film gives some sense of the isolation of solo and ocean sailing but a lot of the framing of the trimaran alone at sea is from above with the horizon not often seen, this detracts from an obvious potential visual clue about the vastness and complete isolation that comes with having nothing on one’s horizon.

The storm scenes were unfortunately but understandably CGI and the nature of the storm that was portrayed will seem, to those who’ve been through one or two, not quite grounded in reality; however, it does prove a dramatic device that provides the veritable landlubber with a sense of the scale and power of the sea. Donald’s cowering at the bottom of the companionway steps, petrified to step on deck to attend to the sails while equally scared to leave his boat to the fate of the elements seemed heartfelt and real.

Supporting the two main actors is a strong and well-known cast of British talent. Donald’s press agent, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), acts as an exposition, allowing the sensitivities of the family’s story to be brought together with the commercial and journalistic pressures that weighed heavily on Donald to be understood within the one narrative. For the audience to empathise with Donald, these pressures needed to be appreciated and perceived from his perspective. This twinned narrative is beautifully entwined with good acting from the cast and is combined with subtle humour aimed at the period’s culture and norms.

The temptation to over-dramatise the story was avoided; it felt true and honest, with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston praising it for its authenticity and dignity towards the Crowhurst family. The film finishes on the eminently poignant suicide of Donald and the aftermath this leaves his family in; this is touchingly portrayed.

The film realised in the 60th anniversary year of the start of the Golden Globe Race and just before a repeat race begins in June, this time departing from Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Clearly of more interest to those with a passion for sailing, The Mercy is a touching drama about a man who pushed himself into a position from which he couldn’t see a way out. The acting is engaging throughout and one is left with a feeling of real sorrow and pity.

NB. The Mercy is one of two films about Donald Crowhurst being released this year. The other, is a lower budget British film, the rights to which were bought by Studiocanal to prevent it being released in competition to The Mercy. The film is called Crowhurst, it’s directed by Simon Rumley and is due for release later this year.

Fair winds,
John and Coralee