It is impossible, frankly, to write about this film without spoilers. It just cannot be done. That being said, it is arguable that the very idea of spoilers here is ridiculous, considering anyone can Google the name of Donald Crowhurst. My recommendation is don’t do it. Refrain from any such temptation, and watch this film first, as I did (and of course, don’t read any more of this post until you have)
So if you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either seen the film, have no interest in ever doing so, or already know the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, a very human story of a flawed man who became his own undoing. I should begin by stating that Johann Johannsson brought me here, not the first time the late Icelandic composer brought me to a film that he had worked on, but sadly possibly the last. I only knew of The Mercy because its soundtrack was the last to be released prior to his sudden passing, and Johannsson was possibly the last film composer whose soundtrack albums I would buy heedless of the film or music itself. The music did not disappoint, with new material and old it teased a sombre and moody film. I must say, having now seen the film, it is clear that Johannsson was the perfect choice for the film’s score- the music is typical of the composers work- intimate, fragile, tender, mournful, yet enlightened with moments of joy.
Which is where, I suppose, we now come to the film itself. As I have stated, I came to the film knowing nothing about the true story behind it- I only knew that it was some kind of sailing adventure, perhaps one of those stirring and daunting nautical tales of man against nature, likely similar to the film All is Lost. Well, I was both right and wrong.
The story, part mystery, part tragedy, is well known, apparently- though naturally it was new to me. Donald Crowhurst (played here by Colin Firth) was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman who took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, a competition to be the first person to sail nonstop single-handedly around the world. Crowhurst was not a good enough sailor, was under-prepared, underfunded, handicapped by a boat that was unfit for purpose- but incredibly the competition did not scrutinise entrants for sufficient experience or ability. Crowhurst’s attempt was hopelessly doomed, but haunted by the threat of bankruptcy and ruin (his financier held Crowhurst’s house as collateral if he failed to finish the race), he stayed out at sea for 240 days and attempted to hoax the press and public that he’d managed the circumnavigation. Crowhurst believed that if he could convince, through fake log-books, that he had managed the voyage, if one of the other entrants won, he would not come under any scrutiny. His schemes unravelled when the majority of the other competitors dropped out during the daunting race and when it seemed that he would succeed in the setting of the fastest time, he realised he was undone and could not maintain the lie under the scrutiny of winning. While thousands, including his wife Clare and his children, waited his triumphant return home, Crowhurst could see no way out. Radio contact ended, Crowhurst disappeared, and when his trimaran was found, derelict in the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there was no sign of him, and the log-books that he had left revealed a tale of a tragic fall into desperation and madness, a descent into oblivion.
The story of the failed hoax, when it broke, proved to be a huge scandal, but The Mercy wisely raises above just that story, and tells us about the flawed, driven individual who loved his family but whom fate and hubris drove him to tragedy (and left his wife and children to face the fallout). While it starts all light and positive, it takes a very dark turn that was quite unexpected by me. Indeed, its one of the most depressing films I have seen in quite awhile, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Colin Firth is very good at portraying the best in Crowhurst, perhaps less so in showing his failings. Inherently Firth has too noble a screen persona and while this ultimately works against the film it does mean the eventual twist and downfall is possibly all the more shocking. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare proves to be the heart and soul of the film, albeit she is perhaps too beautiful, too perfect? Well, that’s an issue I have often found with Weisz, as she usually gravitates towards very normal, ordinary characters in her film choices, but here it raises the question of what fool of a man could ever leave this idyllic wife and mother of his children for a dangerous journey risking life and everything? As usual, David Thewlis is excellent: here playing the dubious, provincial hack reporter Rodney Hallworth, who was hired as publicist and whose hype and tall tales fanned the flames of race fever that would eventually drive Crowhurst to foolish ruin.
Its a very sober tale of the human condition, I thought, and I found this film to be both riveting and horrifying, frankly, especially as I had no idea of the story’s dark denouement. Carried along by the beautiful light and darkness of the music of Johann Johannsson, with all the poignancy that his own passing itself entails, I found this to be a very fine film. It feels very much like an anxiety-dream, a terrible fall into hopelessness and quite harrowing.
The Mercy is currently available on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray.