Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Runtime: 112 mins.
Australian release date: 8 March 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 1 March 2018.
To sail around the world single-handedly is a feat attempted by few and accomplished by even fewer yet it holds a fascination for many. James Marsh’s new film The Mercy tells the true story of one such ill-fated voyage. In the late 1960s Francis Chichester achieved success in doing so but he made one stop, in Sydney. Not long afterwards, in 1968, The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race upped the ante by offering a 5,000 pound prize (a lot of money in those days) to the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly, non-stop. It was deemed a crazy mission but a few brave souls were prepared to attempt the journey; the only condition they had to meet was that they must leave England between the 1st of June and the 31st of October so they would be in the dangerous Southern Ocean by summer, when the sea was less treacherous. The aim was to sail around the three great Capes: Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin and South America’s Cape Horn before returning to Old Blighty.
Living in Teignmouth, a picturesque town in Devon, England, was Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), an inventor who had created a radio direction finder called the ‘Navicator’, a device that was able to read marine and aviation radio beacons (this was long before satellites and GPS). He was also an amateur sailor and when he heard about the race he approached a local businessman, Stanley Best (Ken Stott), to sponsor his voyage. He hoped that he would win the prize money, gain a boost for his ailing business and provide more for his family, consisting of a doting, supportive wife, Clare (Rachel Weisz) and his young children. He also engaged the services of a PR person, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who was determined to make headlines with Crowhurst’s endeavour and keep him constantly in the hearts and minds of the British public. On October 31st Crowhurst set sail in an ill-prepared 12-metre trimaran of his own design called Teignmouth Electron, which started taking on water almost immediately; the closer he got to Cape Horn, the more beset with problems he became and the more he began to question whether he could make it or not. Knowing that dropping out would come at great cost to him and his family, he came up with a novel answer to his problem, but one that would prey on his mind for the remainder of the journey.
Scott Z. Burns’s excellent screenplay forms the basis of Marsh’s re-telling of this incredible story, much of it based on Crowhurst’s detailed log books that revealed his complex and conflicted psychological state. It’s a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction but it’s also a thoughtful treatise on the nature of truth, about how some people can lie with impunity and the cost to those who can’t. Firth succeeds in conveying Crowhurst’s dilemma with great sensitivity and in a non-hysterical manner, which makes his performance all the more compelling. The latter part of the film focuses on the lone sailor’s mental state rather than on his battle with the elements, á la J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (although there are moments when you may feel a bit seasick as the boat is riding the swell). Marsh explains, “The isolation is a huge part of what goes wrong in Crowhurst’s mind. Your brain chemistry changes when you don’t speak to people”.
The Mercy is an enthralling experience aided by the beautiful, mesmerizing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who sadly died prematurely earlier this year at 48). It is a worthy tribute to those who seek to take on the most difficult of challenges and, even though they may not succeed in their goals, have the guts to attempt the feat in the first place, to push themselves to extremes. Crowhurst speaks for them all when he says, “I am going because I would have no peace if I stayed.”