Pihla Pekkarinen reviews James Marsh’s take on a fascinating true story.
Director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) is well-versed in the biopic. Subject Donald Crowhurst led an extraordinarily interesting life. Actors Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz both boast Academy Awards among their lists of accolades. The Mercy has all the makings of a cookie-cutter Academy-pleasing success story. And yes, it might be just that. But it is also incredibly dull.
The Mercy tells the story of Donald Crowhurst, who, after entering the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe race, begins spinning lies about his location and gets lost in his own fantasy of success. His family, sponsors, and everyone around the world believes he is traveling around the globe faster than his competitors, when in reality, he is stagnant and drifting towards insanity. The Mercy is an attempt to redeem the reputation of someone whose story has been told in largely poor light, and showcase Crowhurst’s story not as one of failure, but as one of human fragility. But in handling the story so carefully, it loses much of its vibrance and appeal.
Biopics have the opportunity to transform the way we recount history. They can bring forgotten people back into relevance, and show touching, relatable stories on the big screen that remind us of moments in the past that might have been overlooked. But how these stories are told makes all the difference. The Mercy is overly confident that the characters and story they have found is enough to be compelling that we would be forgiving of its flaws because it is based in truth. The filmmakers have been too afraid to touch their chosen narrative of redemption, to create dimension through angering moments or character faults, and have thus created a film which is lukewarm. The Mercy is constantly telling us exactly what to think and why we should think it. The story is being told at us, not to us. The beginning of the film is not gripping in the slightest. Towards the end, despite a dangerously high volume of unnecessary jump-cuts, the actors manage to transcend the mediocre writing and the film becomes much more touching and compelling. Unfortunately, because of the first lackluster hour, we don’t make it all the way back.
Colin Firth gives one of his best performances since The King’s Speech as Donald Crowhurst, moving swiftly and convincingly from the stuck-in-his-youth, glint-in-his-eye father looking for adventure into the lonely, isolated man stuck in his lies with no escape. His performance is charismatic and confident, and appealing in the way the film is aiming to be; even so, the part has set limiting parameters that even his skill cannot breach. When Crowhurst is forced to tell us why he is going, as if convincing us of his zeal for life, it ends up much more plastic than if the film had just shown us the close-ups of Firth’s wild smiles and left it at that.
It’s not that the film is bad. It’s not bad. Firth and Weisz give incredibly moving and convincing performances both together and apart, the pastel palette is very pleasing to the eye, and the production designer has paid meticulous attention to detail on both the ship and the home. But the film crosses the line into cliché one too many times, undermining the central message of Crowhurst’s redemption in the public eye. A shot of a school of dolphins leaping in the sea, another of a hopeful man standing on the deck of a hand-built ship, leaning onto the mast… they’re textbook. And standing alongside bold, beautiful films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out and others which demand space and attention – it feels a little underwhelming.
The Mercy comes out in UK cinemas on February 9th. Check out the trailer below: