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15th of December 2018

Movies



‘The Mercy’ Review: Sailing Around the World, or Maybe Not

What drives a man to abandon a doting wife (Rachel Weisz) and three of the best-behaved children in Christendom to circumnavigate the globe in an ill-prepared trimaran? The makers of “The Mercy” have a few ideas; but perhaps the most reliable message of this based-on-real-life tale is that middle age is a bitch.

Whatever the reason, such was the appeal of this adventure that Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), a mild-mannered engineer and indifferent sailor, was willing to risk everything to take to sea. The event was the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which ran from 1968-69 in the publicity-roiled wake of Sir Francis Chichester’s successful round-the-world yacht trip. The goal was to one-up Chichester, who had made only a single stop, and finish the race without touching land.

From the very first frame, the movie’s concern with deception is signaled as a bikini-clad exhibition model feigns water-skiing against a painted backdrop. Having leveraged everything he owns to acquire a shrewd financial backer (Ken Stott) and a wily press agent (David Thewlis), Crowhurst soon recognizes his recklessness while pretending to his family that all is well. Delayed for months as his specially modified boat is completed, he finally embarks, only to encounter critical equipment failure and the outer limits of his competence. Unable to continue and unwilling to face the embarrassment and bankruptcy that await him if he turns back, he devises a contemptible third option that will finally prove even more ruinous.

VideoA preview of the film.Published OnNov. 20, 2018

Directed, very respectfully, by James Marsh, “The Mercy” (the title comes from Crowhurst’s final logbook entry) is a terribly English drama, starchy and repressed. Downplaying the selfishness and irresponsibility of Crowhurst’s actions, Marsh has made a movie about a man playing the part of a hero — apparently, in this telling, to restore his self-respect and gain the admiration of his children. Things loosen up a little at sea, but this is no “All is Lost”: the effects are far from special and neither is Crowhurst’s boiled-milk personality. A 2001 New York Times review of Peter Nichols’ book about the race, “A Voyage for Madmen,” calls him “the saddest character ever to put to sea.”

If that’s true, then Firth nails him, albeit in a performance so restrained that it only emphasizes the movie’s lack of oceanic excitement. Yet in prioritizing Crowhurst’s psychological frailty over his physical challenges (both conveyed more evocatively in the excellent 2007 documentary “Deep Water”), Firth and his director find something quietly touching, even soulful, in the character’s wretchedness. In this somber tragedy, the real demons are never anywhere but right inside that boat.

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