Review: The Mercy | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: The Mercy

Film Critic Todd Waugh Ambridge refuses to go down with The Mercy, true-story-sailing-biopic starring Colin Firth, the proverbial ship in this metaphor

The true story of Donald Crowhurst, one of the most infamous pieces of sailing lore, is one that can resonate with anyone. A wide-eyed man, full of ambition, optimism and determination, is forced to face the reality of his choices and reckon with his own humanity against the forces of both the natural world and his own inner turmoil. It’s the sort of timeless tale that can be (and has been) told and retold. Directed by James Marsh (The Theory of Everything), The Mercy is the first British big-screen adaptation of Crowhurst’s story, and with national treasure Colin Firth in the leading role this should be an instant classic. It isn’t.

Donald Crowhurst (Firth) is a novice inventor and amateur sailor who leads a happy, but unfulfilling, life with his wife Clare (Weisz) and three children in Teignmouth, Devon. When the opportunity to become the first sailor to circumnavigate the world without stopping comes in the form of a contest with a huge cash prize, Crowhurst decides he can no longer sit around while everyone else has the adventures.

With national treasure Colin Firth in the leading role this should be an instant classic. It isn’t
Building his own boat, and with the support of his family and local sponsors, he sets sail to prove the small man can make a large splash. Colin Firth is perfectly cast as Crowhurst; his signature humble-handsome English-gentleman act embodying Crowhurst’s balance of confidence, ego and naivety. As the film goes on, however, the Firth we know and love begins to deteriorate in much the same way as Crowhurst, becoming more unrecognisable as the sea isolates and maddens him. Weisz also does what she can with the simple (but necessary) role of the nodding wife, her performance leading to some of the film’s most touching moments.

The problem with The Mercy is that it's just nowhere near as good as it should be. For a story as timeless as this – for a character as intriguing and complex – there's not a lot to show for it. It seems that instead of making an interesting character study concerning the volatile nature of ambition, Marsh chose instead to get his all-star cast to act out a Wikipedia article. In Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay, all the important points are hit, most without enthusiasm and none dwelled upon. The film is disappointing to the point of frustration. The majority of the cast and crew have put in their best.

Instead of making an interesting character study concerning the volatile nature of ambition, Marsh chose instead to get his all-star cast to act out a Wikipedia article
The bobbing, uneasy camerawork allows one to feel as sea-sick as Crowhurst, the sets are stunning – Crowhurst’s boat, the Teignmouth Electron, has been faithfully rebuilt – and the film does recreate that wholesome, optimistic feeling of the late 1960s. With all of this in place, the writers and director simply had to do their job. But none of the decisions made by Crowhurst in reality translate to believable on screen. The difficult position he found himself in, the guilt and shame he so clearly felt alone aboard theTeignmouth Electron, somehow feel hollow when acted out. It’s because no time or effort is put into shaping Crowhurst as a believable character – as if Marsh and Burns just thought, “well it’s a true story, so everyone will just believe everything he does because it actually happened”. Instead of just ticking off the key story beats, the writers should have taken a little more artistic licence and studied Crowhurst’s broken ego and selfish ambition in more depth and breadth.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else to say about the film. Marsh has proven, as he did with The Theory of Everything, that he is the director to call if you want to take an inspiring, beautiful story and turn it into a boring, forgettable slog. Ultimately, it says something that during its emotional climax, my attention was preoccupied with a far more interesting continuity error taking place behind the lead actress. I really wanted to care, but I just didn’t.

Verdict: Like his film The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s The Mercy is a solid adaptation but nothing more. The cast are brilliant, and there is some great cinematography on show, but the film is let down by a script and direction that touches everything but feels nothing.

Rating: 4/10

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18th February 2018 at 9:00 am

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