Sunday 18 February 2018

That sinking feeling: "The Mercy"

Creatives keep returning to the story of Donald Crowhurst - a name in fleeting newspaper headlines at the end of the 1960s - doubtless because the story threatens to communicate so much about Britishness, our aspirations and our isolation. (A Remainer might stretch and suggest there might be reasons why he should have bubbled back up into the collective consciousness at this particular moment.) Crowhurst, you may or may not recall, was the amateur yachtsman who enthusiastically signed up to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, despite having no applicable experience and entirely the wrong equipment for the task; he soon found himself adrift in his stricken vessel, hopelessly alone, and going ever so slowly out of his mind. This not-so-able seaman's plight previously inspired 2006's outstanding documentary Deep Water, narrated by a never-spookier Tilda Swinton and making considerable use of Crowhurst's logbooks and diaries; it's also the subject of indie adventurer Simon Rumley's forthcoming psychological drama Crowhurst, which one suspects may well retain some of that earlier film's chill.

For now, we have The Mercy, a brisk middlebrow retelling that finds director James Marsh, hot off the back of 2014's The Theory of Everything, doing everything possible to make the sailor's experience on the high seas a little less of an ordeal than it might have been at the time. In Colin Firth, an actor who's quietly perfected a diffidence that may or may not be inseparable from Englishness, Marsh's film finds its ballast: here is the kind of performance that might well have factored into this year's awards conversation had everyone else around committed to it more fully. The casting is commercially minded, but very sound. Firth handles this boat as well as Crowhurst did - which is to say well enough to steer it out of Teignmouth harbour - but never so confidently as to suggest he might get it round the globe; his generally groomed star persona makes Crowhurst's slide into ranting, seaweed-covered dishevelment all the more shocking and impactful. This Crowhurst is a would-be dashing blade who realises, mere minutes after signing up to this romantic venture, that he has in fact backed himself into the tightest of corners, with no easy way out; the film's most gripping sequences, watching the sailor desperately striving to fix up his leaky trimaran, recall 2013's All is Lost, only tacked in a different direction. This is no parable of survival, but a story of male pride, and the dark waters it can carry us into.

The trouble is that Marsh and regular Soderbergh screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects) have decided this ought not to be the whole story - or, rather, that that story might just be too stark for an audience (and particularly Firth's core audience) to take. So we also get the sailor's reminiscences of the Laura Ashley life he shared with wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and kids, intended to serve as compensation for the manner in which Crowhurst absented himself from these loved ones; there are cutaways to David Thewlis as a jovial Northern press agent that I think are meant to provide comic relief, and - at the script's most superfluous - a midfilm round-up of the progress of the Golden Globe Race's better prepared participants. You could argue that what Marsh and Burns are offering us is context - a greater sense of the consolations and pressures Crowhurst was sailing away from - but there's a jolting disconnect between the quasi-impressionistic tale of survival Firth is acting up a storm in and the greatly more conventional period piece going on ashore; for a story hinged on increasingly insupportable solitude, The Mercy sure feels over-populated.

This may perhaps be a reflection on the director's newfound standing within the industry. Ever since coming in from the cold of documentary production - with 2008's Oscar-winning Man on Wire - Marsh has had resources enough at his disposal to make the bigger pictures and cast A-list actresses in roles that demand no more of them than peeling potatoes and doing the hoovering, not to mention recreate the Sunday Times newsroom as it was in 1968, no manner that such an elaborately appointed out dilutes some of the power of the story he's come to tell. As successive iterations have demonstrated, that power resides almost exclusively in the sight of a man on a leaky boat in the middle of nowhere, living a lie he was uniquely unsuited to sustaining, and facing up to a life-or-death decision - an existential conundrum (momentum = madness?) shared by the no less wayward pioneers Marsh depicted in 1999's breakthrough documentary Wisconsin Death Trip.

A director weighed down by recent Academy and BAFTA laurels is unlikely to have the creative freedom to make a film as open-ended, hallucinatory and fundamentally bleak as that, however, and so we find Marsh once more feeling an obligation to round off and tidy up after himself: The Mercy heads towards a coda determined to provide both a measure of closure to the Crowhurst clan, and - for the wider audience - a way-too-neat lesson in what we might learn from its protagonist's actions. Gained over several decades of their own experience, this director's steady-handed professionalism and his leading man's admirable commitment ensures the finished feature just about meets its original brief as functioning matinee fare - but one can't help but think Crowhurst's story is a story to haunt our dreams, as it did in the wake of the documentary, not merely to kill a couple of the hours separating Doctors from A Place in the Sun.

The Mercy is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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