A surprisingly timely heart and nuanced performances from Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz mean The Mercy is about much more than just sailing.

You wait half a century for a Donald Crowhurst biopic, and then two come along at once. Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst came first after pipping James Marsh’s The Mercy to the post with a festival premiere last year, but The Mercy, which will likely get a US release in March, is undoubtedly the heavyweight of the twin films, what with its A-list cast, Oscar-winning director, and stomach-churning visual effects.

Donald Crowhurst’s story certainly makes for a compelling narrative, which might help explain why it’s the focus of more than one film this year. (Less explicable is the fact that both are being released by StudioCanal; it’s very rare to have one distributor backing two horses in the same race.) An amateur sailor and family man, Crowhurst was also the financially struggling inventor of a nautical device who became the underdog competitor in a 1968 Sunday Times-sponsored yacht race around the world. The prospect of winning a hefty £5,000 for his family, boosting sales of his sailing-themed invention and getting the chance to live out a personal dream was irresistible for Crowhurst, although the two competing movies have varying ideas about which one of these motivations ultimately ruled him.

Much less experienced than his rivals, The Mercy‘s Donald nevertheless embodies that quintessentially British brand of derring-do, evoking treasured national totems like Winston Churchill (a fascination that still bears out, as this year’s Oscar nominations prove). This isn’t an underdog sports story, however, even if The Mercy does begin in that vein. There is no miraculous gust of wind propelling Donald and his Star Wars-production-set-reject of a boat across the seas into first place. The only thing powering him through countless pre-launch obstacles is the ambitious aim he’s set on the horizon. As The Mercy points out, though, the mind can find itself marooned in tempestuous waters in pursuit of such lofty goals.

The exact circumstances surrounding the end of Donald’s story cannot, admittedly, be confirmed; instead of verifiable fact, The Mercy leans toward the popular assumption of what must have happened. But the middle portion of the film is based on indisputable truth: dangerously lagging behind his competitors, an overwrought Donald begins to call in false coordinates, giving everyone at home the impression he is much farther ahead than he really is. Initially, all goes swimmingly – his wife (played by Rachel Weisz) and three children are happy, as are his financial backer (Ken Stott) and PR team (journalists played by David Thewlis and Jonathan Bailey). But when the other competitors begin to drop out like flies, Donald finds himself the unlikely last horse in the race. His naiveté in joining the race aside, Donald is no fool: he knows that to return a victor would invite much scrutiny of his logbooks. Given closer inspection, there is no way his astonishing numbers would add up. All alone and out at sea, with the expectations of his family and the vicarious dreams of a nation weighing heavy on his shoulders, Donald finds himself in an impossible predicament.

The Mercy Rachel Weisz

In the lead role, Firth is an example of particularly strong casting: on terra firma, he puts his aging good looks to work playing the cardigan-clad Donald as an amiable, boy-like daydreamer. Firth makes his character all the more likable by adopting a slight air of middle-aged patheticness that only intensifies once things begin to go awry. The moral crisis now in full swing, a final Castaway-style makeover is all that’s left to render him natural prey for our pity.

Our compassion easily extends to his wife, Clare (Weisz), too — and particularly to his eldest son James (Finn Elliott), who is old enough to pick up on his parents’ conflicting emotions, each deftly conveyed by Weisz and Firth. Elliott is an impressive young talent, while Weisz is especially good in a nuanced role that’s an interesting echo of the part she played in The Light Between Oceans, with her measured, slightly nasal tones making it sound like she’s already mid-grief the minute Donald sets off.

This sense of pathos is affirmed through a number of lamenting compositions by the maestro of loss, the sadly departed Jóhann Jóhannsson. Early moments in the soundtrack evoke the elegant floatiness of Jóhannsson’s other score for Marsh (on The Theory of Everything), while the bold minimalist compositions that come later make it difficult to distinguish where the sound design ends and the score begins, as in his more daring work for Denis Villeneuve.

The seasickness-inducing cinematography from Eric Gautier (who lensed the similarly introspective Into the Wild) embeds us in Donald’s shaky psyche as he floats adrift, powerless in the face of greater forces. Spectacular visual effects in seething storm scenes underscore Gautier’s work by providing a staggering sense of scale, demonstrating just how dangerously easy it is to find yourself in deep water when you’ve had your head in the clouds for so long.

A tale like Donald Crowhurst’s couldn’t happen today; technological advances mean he’d never be able to pull off such a hoax. But in his period-specific story there is a timely, universally accessible heart: in this day and age, it’s hard not to view The Mercy as a gender-lensed mental health movie. Donald deftly sums this reading up in a line from the film: “A great deal of pressure falls on the man alone on the boat. The sea shows no mercy.” In his era, people tended not to, either, which is exactly why Donald’s dilemma is so unbearably impossible.

In 2018, there is a sense that deception of this kind would be forgivable. In the last few years, we’ve made it through enough scandals in the sporting world to prove that absolution is possible (or, at least, that our collective memory is more forgivingly short-term than it used to be). But The Mercy paints a picture of a country still so enamored with its dying past that Donald’s boyish fantasy becomes the conduit through which certain elements of a rapidly changing nation can hang on to their quasi-imperial fantasies.

In 1968, the British Empire was in its death throes, with decolonization in Africa being made complete just a few months before Donald’s departure. Events at home like the Ford sewing machinists strike in Dagenham (as depicted in Made in Dagenham) and the folding of stalwart regional industries (cotton trading in the North; coal mining in the Black Country) further indicated seismic overhaul was approaching Britain’s gendered and racialized status quo. Overseas, 1968 was no less monumental a year: in the US, second-wave feminism and the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements were in full swing, while youthful cultural-political revolutions raged in Eastern Europe and France.

Against this uncertain global climate, a plucky, white, older Englishman out to conquer the seas for his nation must have seemed like the last of a dying species. Even if Donald Crowhurst had simply set out to realize a personal dream of his, The Mercy hints that, to substantial chunks of the country, the stakes were much higher. In the film’s final act, both Donald and his family are all too agonizingly aware of this. Therein lies the nuanced, timely poignancy of The Mercy.

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