Historical ruptures have a vortex-like effect on films made in their vicinity, sucking even the most innocuous of tales into allegorical acts of join-the-dots. James Marsh finished filming The Mercy in 2015, but its subject matter feels so tuned-in to the following year’s cataclysms – Brexit, Trump – that it’s hard to watch it without these events in mind.
The Mercy takes place in what was another make-or-break year for many Western societies – 1968, a time of riots and revolts that spelled the beginning of the end for the counterculture. It isn’t the Latin Quarter in Paris or downtown Chicago that is of interest here, though, but rather the sleepy seaside town of Teignmouth in Devon.
Colin Firth plays Donald Crowhurst, businessmen and amateur sailor, whose real life attempt to circumnavigate the world as part of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race ended in failure, lies, and insanity. Betting his family’s financial welfare on his ability to finish the race, Donald ended up throwing himself overboard to avoid the shame of defeat.
This is not before he sends a series of radio messages back home that report his position as being far more advanced than it actually is. As the guilt of his deception starts to build, and the isolation of several months at sea tug at his mind, Crowhurst becomes unmoored from reality, scribbling scary mystagogic nonsense in his logbook.
Firth makes for a convincing English eccentric overtaken by his delusions of grandeur, and his portrayal of Crowhurst’s eventually mortal cabin fever is enthralling. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare is generally underused, save for a fairly melodramatic – though none the less rousing – doorstep speech to the media towards the end.
Watching a man named Donald send increasingly deranged missives to the world through an electronic device is only the tip of The Mercy’s uncanny relevance. More notable is how the film conveys a vision of Britannia that no longer rules the waves, and is indeed cast-off from the world in a dangerous mix of insularity and nostalgia.
In fact, The Mercy on the whole replicates the same rose-tinted perspective whose flaws, however half-heartedly, it wants to expose. The mise-en-scene is like a Devonshire picture postcard come to life, to which supporting turns from David Thewlis and Ken Stott add the occasional flavour of charming but ultimately a touch banal caricatures.
Marsh’s last film was The Theory Of Everything, and his newest effort strikes a similar chord – another semi-biopic whose end goal is to have us exit safely through the gift shop.
There is perhaps more pathos and significance in Crowhurst’s story than The Mercy is able to handle, however relevant its depiction of an Englishman adrift in his little boat no doubt is.