The Mercy is one of those movies that you probably didn’t catch. It was in the cinemas briefly and with little fanfare, and then it wasn’t. Maybe it will show up on TV sometime, or perhaps you’ll dip into it on Netflix. The film hasn’t quite got all of the awards recognition that it was angling for, which I think is fair, however, it’s interesting to think why exactly this is. It has solid, even great, performances by Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz; it has a confined, actor focused narrative, allowing the actors to show off their actorly chops to their fullest; and it deals with emotionally raw real life content. Why then has this film not received critical validation? It’s just kind of slipped by. The truth is that, as well acted and solidly filmed as The Mercy is, it suffers from its script. In fact, The Mercy is an interesting case study in narrative structure generally.
The Mercy tells the tale of Donald Crowhurst and his tragic failed solo passage around the globe via sail power alone. The tale is strongly affecting, as Crowhurst is steadily driven to a futile and tragic suicide. The film tries to tread a difficult line, clearly not wishing to upset Crowhurst’s surviving family, but not enough to make the film in the first place. Because of this decision, the film is extremely careful to place Crowhurst as the tragic hero at the film’s centre. Crowhurst is driven in his pursuit of fulfilling an epic challenge to take on financial commitments that place his family in jeopardy.
The film moves the emphasis from Crowhurst’s actions and on to those around him; suggesting that Crowhurst started something that went beyond his capacity to control, which is no doubt ultimately true. Crowhurst has a vision of creating a pioneering sail vessel that he plans to market as ‘a caravan of the sea.’ He sees The Times’ around the world sail competition as the perfect means by which to market this new vision. Crowhurst ends up deeply in debt to a Mr. Best, who is keen to leverage his risk with all Crowhurst’s worldly possessions. It is in fulfilment of this debt that Crowhurst must persist with his voyage, even when he knows that the condition of his vessel will not permit its successful completion. Desperate not to lose everything, Crowhurst begins to lie about his progress, which only makes the problem worse.
It seems to me that there sits a slight contrast in the film’s interpretation of Crowhurst. Clearly Crowhurst in his own way had a strongly pioneering and risk taking nature. Crowhurst’s actions display considerable urgency. He is extremely proactive in terms of finding funding from Mr. Best and gaining the support of a press agent, Rodney Hallworth. He is focused and determined in creating his boat and shows considerable ingenuity when he decides to lie about the progress of his voyage. Despite all of this real life urgency Crowhurst displays, the film’s portrayal of Crowhurst is one of helplessness. The film portrayed a man who was driven by unfolding events, rather than a man who was striving to regain control of them. Crowhurst’s apparent lack of urgency bothered me; it bothered me because Crowhurst’s actions were far more calculated than the film accounted for. A man doesn’t simply moor off the Argentine coast in search of repairs; Crowhurst’s motivation was purposefully downplayed in order to make him appear a more passive character. The thing is, I think it would have been perfectly possible to show Crowhurst as possessing drive and tenacity, and still fall victim to the pressures of his debtors and public opinion.
Creating a compelling narrative while remaining respectfully tied to real life events can create a difficult challenge. However, Colin Firth is required to play Crowhurst in such a manner as to downplay his apparent spark, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. The Mercy has within it an excellent film. Rachel Weisz’s performance in particular carried considerable dignity and pathos. The failure of the film was in the script’s failure to inject dramatic tension and urgency into its narrative and lead character.