”It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece…” – Wayward Wolf.
When I were but a wee slip of a lad I was whisked here and there all over the City of London by my quite frankly incredible Grandma. She seemed absolutely hell-bent on introducing me, my sister and two of my cousins to just about every last historical landmark on the map. Always one to stress the importance of history upon us.
One such landmark was The Gipsy Moth IV yacht. It stood land-locked for just over thirty years in Greenwich, London, alongside the Cutty Sark tea clipper – a lasting testament to Sir Francis Chichester who, aboard this fine vessel, had become the first ever yachtsman to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, stopping just once en route out of absolute necessity.
A year or so after his heroics, Sir Francis was to throw down the gauntlet to the next generation of yachtsmen. The challenge was simple. Was there anyone that could single-handedly circumnavigate the globe, but do so without stopping at all?
James Marsh’s film, The Mercy, paints a picture of Donald Crowhurst, the much loved husband of Clare, and the father of three children on whom he dotes. Quite why this man was so drawn to Chichester’s challenge is perhaps never truly revealed, but being a keen weekend sailor himself, and with a strong background in engineering, Crowhurst is confident enough that he’s up to the task. Afterall, as he himself suggests – albeit from the security of dry land: “if you know how to sail, then circumnavigating the globe just requires one to keep on sailing for an extended period of time…” – or words to that effect.
There is of course some logic to such an opinion, yet, whether this is just a show of bravado or not, in the context of his proposed voyage, it is undeniably something of a naive statement. Nonetheless, Crowhurst seems determined, and sets about not only building his own trimaran, but kitting it out with a number of gadgets and devices of his own invention.
Bringing financial sponsorship and press interest on board brings a greater degree of professionalism and realism to the project, but the unforeseen set backs are numerous and not only delay Crowhurst’s departure – and thus his chances of winning – but result in ever greater financial burdens. With his family’s house and possessions now in jeopardy should he fail, this amateur sailor’s predicament is becoming increasingly precarious.
With nagging doubts now racing through his mind, a boat that’s barely fit for purpose, and having painted himself into a corner through his considerable financial obligations, Donald Crowhurst nevertheless makes the bold decision to proceed regardless.
The Mercy, whilst at one point threatening to become some sort of heroic sea-faring yarn of derring do – bringing to mind Robert Redford’s dramatic 2013 solo vehicle, All Is Lost, in the process – in fact takes an unexpected turn (unexpected that is for those that are unaware of the story).
A couple of months into his journey, Crowhurst becomes increasingly aware that, all considered, any attempts to continue would be akin to suicide. Drastic times so often call for drastic measures and against his better judgement and moral values he makes the unthinkable decision to fake his ‘progress’, relaying a sequence of impressive reports at strategic intervals back to HQ, all the while seeing out the days in relatively calm waters. A far cry from some of the perilous waters of the Southern Hemisphere.
James Marsh’s film does a fine job of contrasting the guilt, chaos and both physical and mental sufferance of Crowhurst’s doomed voyage with the rose-tinted perceptions – and therefore heightened expectations – of his family, the community in which they live, and the local (and later national) press who positively lap up each and every false statement of achievement that Donald ashamedly wires across – digging himself further and further into an ever expanding hole in the process.
Firth’s portrayal of this desperate man is sincere and at times commanding. With the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and realising that he’s simply way too far out of his depth now to consider turning back, his ultimate descent into disgrace and madness borders on heartbreaking.
Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of his loyal suffering wife is sweet and tender yet quietly powerful, and David Thewlis and Ken Stott both weigh in with reliably solid, believable performances as a local press hack and Crowhurst’s chief financial sponsor, respectively.
It’s a poignant tale made additionally so given the recent untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer whose score predictably beautifully embellishes James Marsh’s heart-felt piece, and whose score for the duo’s previous outing, The Theory of Everything, had in fact picked up a Golden Globe award. Just recognition of a brilliant composer whose passing is a massive loss both to cinema and the world of music in general.
The Mercy, as much as anything, conveys something of a moral message centring around the need to be true to oneself and the ones that we love, lest we suffer the psychological implications of straying too far from such a path.
Contrary to the conclusion that Crowhurst is ultimately believed to have arrived at, nothing is ever quite so bad or quite so irredeemable, that it can’t be forgiven or overcome.
At least that would be the conclusion most likely arrived at by the sane and the rational.
The hallucinatory mind of a man racked by guilt and having been alone at sea for way too long, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.