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Hell and high water in The Mercy

Harrowing and thoughtful true story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst is Colin Firth’s best film for some time

08 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Colin Firth as amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy

THE MERCY
Directed by James Marsh
Certificate 12a
☆☆☆☆

TO sail single-handedly, non-stop around the world for personal glory and a cash prize was a challenge that amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst could not ignore – but deeper within him was the need to do something that had never been done before.

Based on the true story of yacht gizmo inventor Crowhurst, this very watchable biopic takes us back to the late 1960s and examines a man’s motivation to leave a loving family behind on the docks and head out into the unknown.

The back story is compelling for such a drama.

Crowhurst owned a firm that sold navigational equipment and would sail his small boat from Teignmouth bay, Devon, at the weekends.

Born in Delhi and educated at boarding school, he was commissioned in the RAF. Described as a “compulsive risk taker” who was warm, wild and brave, he was asked to leave the RAF and then enlisted in the Army – where he specialised in electronics.

His career included research at Reading University and after working for numerous companies – he would spend hours tinkering on inventions in his shed – he set up his own firm, supported by his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz).

While trying to flog navigational equipment at the Earl’s Court boat show, Crowhurst (Colin Firth) hears round-the-world sailor Francis Chichester announce the Sunday Times is launching a competition to complete a solo circumnavigation challenge.

The winner would scoop £5,000 – but for Donald, it would also give his business much-needed publicity and more importantly fulfil his deep yearning for adventure.

Donald designed a trimaran that he believed would take him safely around the world in record time, but as the film reveals, teething problems as the boat was built meant when he put to sea, he missed not only a window for good weather but did not have time to fully test the boat or ensure various vital features were properly installed.

We follow Donald’s back story as he decides he can’t stay on dry land when this tempting challenge lies ahead – and then we clamber on board to share in his increasing claustrophobia, danger and a personal battle not to return, in his eyes, a failure.

Director James March was able to draw on Crowhurst’s log books, and shows how the race affected others too – it was a challenge that makes for a touching, unforgiving drama.

This is Firth’s best film for some time. He isn’t playing a swoony romantic lead – though he does pull out his usual soft-eyed Englishman’s skit. We get the sense of Crowhurst’s motivations, and the terrible bind he tied himself in.

Weisz is also excellent as the wife left waiting on shore, and the role of press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis) sheds further light on why this man was driven to test himself against the world’s most unforgiving environment.

This harrowing and thoughtful film tastes in equal measure of loneliness of the sea and of someone driven to expect too much of themselves as they try to find a reason for existing.

His world was shaped by the Boys’ Own adventures of Scott of the Antarctic and Sir Edmund Hilary’s scaling of Everest.

This is an intriguing study of a man’s psychological need to seek fulfilment by testing himself against odds that seem far too great to be rationally attempted.

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