The Mercy | Review
Come Sail Away: Marsh Gets Morose with Tale of Doomed Sailor
Director James Marsh tackles the tragedy of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy, his first theatrical feature since his 2014 Oscar winning portrait of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Starring Colin Firth as the doomed competitor (who is nearly twenty years older than Crowhurst at the time of his death), Marsh’s film arrives shortly after Simon Rumley’s 2017 Crowhurst, which covers the same ground, but thanks to the headlining Oscar winners of Firth and Rachel Weisz, the latter film is destined to reach a wider audience. Working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (a regular collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, having penned The Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects), Marsh strikes an intimate pose, focusing on the isolation of husband and wife and their juxtaposed anxieties during the highly publicized sailing race which would consume them both.
In 1968, the mild-mannered Donald Crowhurst (Firth), an enterprising businessman, decides against all odds to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which awarded a cash prize to whoever could win a race circumnavigating the globe. An amateur sailor at best and ill-equipped as well as ill-prepared for such a journey, his struggling business ventures drive him to pursue the extraordinarily foolish venture. Supported by his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), Crowhurst never returns from the trip, leaving his log journals aboard his abandoned ship indicating the false reporting of his coordinates as a potential plan to lie his way into at least faking he’d completed the journey. Intense media coverage of the event, however, plays a significant hand in his eventual mental unraveling.
Marsh is one of those rare filmmakers who tends to move freely between documentary and narrative, and some of his most esteemed works are of the former category, such as the obsessive perversities on display in films like 2008’s Man on Wire and 2011’s Project Nim. His dramatic scenarios tend to feature more internalized characterizations, where his protagonists brood through complex scenarios, such as the underrated Shadow Dancer of 2012 (his The Theory of Everything is, by far, his most mainstream prestige offering to date, even as it attempts to bluntly examine the complicated relationship issues of Stephen and Jane Hawking).
With The Mercy, Marsh is allowed a more sobering, unsentimental landscape, and as we watch Firth plummet into a freefall of paralytic despair, Weisz is allowed to usurp control of our attention, balancing the anxiety of saving face to the media blitz whilst cobbling together resources to feed her children during her husband’s extended absence. Of her three theatrical releases in 2018 (including Lelio’s Disobedience and Lanthimos’ The Favorite), this is by the most routine use of Weisz, and yet, even in these trappings as a smile-through-the-tears housewife, she’s still compelling. Caught between them is a cavalier David Thewlis as a dogged reporter seemingly hell-bent on championing Crowhurst through the sympathetic, press friendly conduit of his wife.
If Weisz is able to milk the broken-winged subtleties of her circumstances for all they’re worth (her demeanor here sometimes reminiscent of a 70s era Margot Kidder), the constant insinuations of Thewlis heighten the menace and anxiety while Firth shoulders the more difficult characterization of a man who loses himself in his impossible ruse. At the same time, the presence of Thewlis conjures memories of his own passage through the bedeviled John Frankenheimer production of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), a shipwrecked narrator who barely survives being stranded at sea. And one can’t help but note this will be one of the last theatrical offerings featuring the work of composer Johann Johansson, whose pensive score defines the menacing mood of this predetermined narrative. A startling and tragic example of modern man’s desperation and hubris, The Mercy is an impassive portrait of a fascinating catastrophe.