Movie Review – The Mercy (2018)

“It is finished… It is the mercy.”

Donald Crowhurst’s final words
  • Director: James Marsh
  • Producers: Graham Broadbent, Scott Z. Burns, Peter Czernin, Nicolas Mauvernay, Jacques Perrin
  • Starring: Colin Firth, Rachael Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott
  • Released: 28 November 2017 (BAFTA New York), 9 February 2018 (UK)

Based on the presumed voyage and fate of Donald Crowhurst during the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (see my previous book reviews on The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and A Voyage for Madmen), The Mercy stars Colin Firth as Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who attempted to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop aboard his trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. Profiling Crowhurst as the enthusiastic underdog, Crowhurst quickly finds himself in over his head and facing financial ruin if he fails to win the race. Attempting to fake his circumnavigation, Crowhurst slowly goes mad from the isolation and pressure.

Plot

*SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

In March 1968, following Francis Chichester’s successful single-handed, one-stop circumnavigation the previous year, the Sunday Times announces the Golden Globe Race as the first non-stop, single-handed circumnavigation. While hawking his Navicator radio direction finder at a boat show, failing entrepreneur and weekend sailor, Donald Crowhurst overhears the announcement and becomes inspired to build a trimaran and enter the race.

After convincing local caravan salesman Stanley Best to sponsor his boat, a revolutionary trimaran with a variety of planned electronic novelties, Crowhurst meets with press agent Rodney Hallworth to arrange the publicity details of his voyage. While Crowhurst’s children are enthusiastic about his endeavor, his wife, Clare, is apprehensive and hopes that he will eventually withdraw from the race before actually going through with it.

Departure – “I’ve never put out to sea in such a completely unprepared state.”

As more participants depart on their voyages for the race, Crowhurst and boatbuilder John Elliot encounter further delays in building the boat which results in Crowhurst having to mortgage his home and company to Best. Thus, should Crowhurst fail to complete the race, he will be financially ruined unless he wins the prize for the fastest circumnavigation.

After a rush to outfit his boat and prepare for his journey, Crowhurst manages to start on the departure deadline of 31 October 1968, despite many of the planned features of his boat being untested and unfinished. For the first two weeks of his voyage, Crowhurst struggles with acclimating to life at sea and soon realizes that his rushed preparation and incomplete boat are hampering his progress. By the end of the second week, he’s only 75 miles north of Madeira, having expected to have made more progress. Despite suggestions by Best to turn back and quit, Crowhurst decides to press on.

Clare Crowhurst (Rachael Weisz) tearfully watches as her husband sails off at the start of his fateful voyage.

The Fake Voyage “What a bloody awful decision.”

With the starboard hull constantly leaking and unable to complete many of his planned safety features, Crowhurst deduces that if he continues into the Southern Ocean and the Roaring Forties, then he’d have only a 50% chance of survival. However, given his financial predicament, he further reasons that he can’t quit, but also can’t continue. Thus, Crowhurst begins to fabricate his voyage by sending exaggerated progress reports to Hallworth; at one point, he even claims a record-breaking 243 miles in a day.

Crowhurst’s real track on the left in blue versus his fabricated track on the right in red. (In reality, at this point, his real and fake tracks weren’t nearly as exaggerated as is depicted.)

On day 54 of his voyage, Christmas approaches and Crowhurst’s faked progress puts him rounding the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Meanwhile, two more sailors have dropped out of the race, leaving only four left. Crowhurst realizes that his logs will be scrutinized given the amount of publicity he’s receiving back home and sends a message to Hallworth saying that he’ll be out of radio contact while in the Indian Ocean.

(left to right) Françoise Moitessier (Alexia Traverse-Healy), Eve Tetley (Dorothy Atkinson), and Clare Crowhurst (Rachael Weisz) pose for a publicity photo. (This scene, based on an actual publicity event for the race, was filmed aboard the HMS Gannet at Chatham.)

The Secret Landing “I’ve got no choice.”

By day 125, Crowhurst nears the coast of South America, but having discovered a hole in his right hull, he has no choice but to put in at a port to make repairs. Such an event would technically disqualify him, but since he’s believed to be in the Southern Ocean, Crowhurst secretly lands at Rio Salado in Argentina. Meeting Petty Officer Santiago Franchessi of the Argentine Naval Prefecture (coast guard) who initially assumes him to be a smuggler, Crowhurst convinces him of his participation in the race and gets his boat repaired before setting off again to head further south. Sometime later, Bernard Moitessier, a French sailor in the race, withdraws after becoming fed up with the commercialism of the event. His withdrawal leaves only Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, and Crowhurst left. Crowhurst now realizes that he absolutely must finish last behind Tetley to avoid scrutiny of his log books which would reveal his fraud.

Crowhurst drops anchor and heads ashore at the mouth of the Rio Salado in Argentina to find parts to repair his leaking hull. (Such an action technically disqualified him from the race.)

Back home, Clare Crowhurst is struggling to make ends meet for her family and applies for government aid. Shortly thereafter, Knox-Johnston returns to England after 312 days at sea, being the first to successfully complete the circumnavigation. While near the Falkland Islands, Crowhurst breaks radio silence and transmits to Hallworth via Buenos Aires that he’s “heading Digger Ramrez” which is translated to mean that he’s approaching Cape Horn and the islands of Diego Ramirez.

By day 214, Crowhurst has sailed back north to the horse latitudes and is 320 miles east of Bermuda. Estimating to be two weeks behind Tetley, he deliberately reduces sail to slow down. Shortly afterward, Tetley sinks, leaving Crowhurst to face further scrutiny for having the fastest time.

Recalling the story he told his daughter about sailors being becalmed in the horse latitudes, Crowhurst dumps a dead captured seahorse overboard, reflecting the difficult choice sailors had to make between whether to save themselves or their horses.

The End of the Game – “It is finished.”

Now under extreme pressure, and with his mental state severely deteriorating, Crowhurst begins having auditory and visual hallucinations of children’s voices or horses walking on the deck of his boat. Similarly, he starts receiving strange hallucinatory transmissions on his radio. Subsequently, Crowhurst begins to believe that he’s playing a great game in which he has taken the role of “a cosmic being.” His further mental deterioration becomes apparent when he cuts the trailing line on his boat, ensuring that he can’t get back aboard should he fall overboard.

Sinking deeper and deeper into his despair, Crowhurst disassembles his radio and even talks on the handset despite it not being connected. His final hallucination is of his wife aboard the boat and he finally concludes that he can’t continue. With that Crowhurst goes up on deck, drops his chronometer into the water, and we see his empty boat drift away.

The Fallout – “Her husband wanted to be famous. Well, now he’s about to be.”

Rodney Hallworth goes to the Dominican Republic to survey the boat and recovers Crowhurst’s logbooks which confirm his falsified voyage and descent into madness. The ensuing media frenzy cements Crowhurst into infamy, but Clare continues to hold onto the memories of her husband and sharply criticizes the media for the unfair pressure they put on her husband and family. Clare reassures her children of their father’s courage and encourages them to cherish their memories of him. The final images are of home movies made by the Crowhurst family in happier times.

Historical Accuracies

A full-sized replica of the Teignmouth Electron was built for the film by Heritage Marine boatbuilders in the U.K. This looks like it could actually be sailed, although I have no idea if the interior is fitted out. Shots of the interior in the film are likely on a soundstage.
The interior of the Teignmouth Electron as she was found adrift.

There’s a lot to be said about the accuracy of this film, although it’s not a documentary like the 2008 film, Deep Water. Similarly, another film based on Crowhurst’s voyage was released the same year as The Mercy, titled Crowhurst and directed by Simon Rumley. I haven’t seen the latter film, so I can’t compare the two, although I believe The Mercy had a significantly larger budget.

Overall, the film gets the chronology of the major events correct, but falters, or is vague, when it comes to the chronology of some of the finer details. Also, the film is accurate regarding the depiction of Crowhurst and his boat, as far as anyone can tell. Again, even the books about Crowhurst’s voyage are reconstructions.

Historical Inaccuracies/Oddities

The biggest inaccuracy is that the film plays fairly fast and loose with the chronology of the events once Crowhurst sets off to sea. While the narrative does move chronologically, it jumps back and forth between Crowhurst aboard his boat and events on land with Hallworth, Best, and Clare. The problem is that it’s not very specific about when some of these events are taking place or it completely fudges the timeline with regard to Crowhurst’s voyage. For example, the film says that on day 214 of his voyage (on June 2nd), Crowhurst was 320 miles east of Bermuda. Crowhurst estimates that he’s about 2 weeks behind Nigel Tetley so he slows down to assure that he finishes last. In reality, at this point in his voyage, he was still south of the equator off the coast of Brazil and nowhere near Bermuda. Furthermore, Tetley had already sunk on May 21st. I would appreciate it if the film was a little more detailed regarding how much time Crowhurst spent at sea, where he was, and how he was doing in comparison to some of the other contestants.

Some other minor inaccuracies or oddities (among many others) include:

  • Firth is older than the real Crowhurst. He was 55 playing a 35-year-old Crowhurst. (Thankfully, he pulls it off.)
  • The film seems to imply that the Crowhursts lived in the town of Teignmouth. In reality, they lived in Bridgewater which is to the north.
  • The film strangely omits one of Crowhurst’s sons, Roger.
  • The maiden voyage of the Teignmouth Electron down the coast of England to the starting port of Teignmouth is omitted (probably for reasons of pacing). However, during that time Crowhurst discovered the drawbacks of multihulls at that time (i.e. they don’t sail close to the wind).

Robin Knox-Johnston was the only person to successfully complete the race, but two others did accomplish successful circumnavigations. Bernard Moitessier, fed up with the commercialization of the race, dropped out to continue sailing and “save his soul.” He ended up circling the world roughly one and one-half times before ending his voyage in Tahiti. Nigel Tetley “technically” did complete a circumnavigation when he crossed his course from 6 months earlier after rounding Cape Horn and coming back up the Atlantic. He became the first person to circumnavigate the world in a trimaran; however, the rules of the race stipulated that you needed to end in the port you started in.

Praises & Criticisms

If you don’t know much about the disaster that was the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and the fate of Donald Crowhurst, then you could be forgiven for initially thinking this is a movie about an underdog who goes on a grand adventure and emerges victorious in all the romantic glory that Hollywood has brought us up to believe. Alas, you’d be wrong. First of all, this isn’t a Hollywood production (it’s produced by BBC Films), and secondly, if you’ve read anything about this race, then you’ll already know that Crowhurst’s story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Being a dramatized account of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, the film presents a number of important lessons to the viewer as it does its best to capture the overall character of Crowhurst, including his most tragic flaws. As I mentioned in my review of that book, I was initially highly critical of Crowhurst’s attempt to cheat in the race, however, I now view his death as tragic. The film starts off innocently and wondrously enough, but once Crowhurst gets out to sea, he quickly realizes that he’s very much in over his head. From the safety of our couches, we can easily opine that Crowhurst should’ve been honest with his level of inexperience and turned back when he had the chance before he dug himself deeper into the hole he was sinking into. Cutting corners, letting pride and ambition overtake reality, and attempting to cover up your bad decisions with dishonesty can lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Crowhurst, unfortunately, crossed this line while at sea and didn’t cash in before it was too late. As others (and the film) have pointed out, in seeking to become famous, Crowhurst ironically became infamous.

Colin Firth is probably one of the best things about this film. He does a good job of giving a sympathetic portrayal of Crowhurst. What Firth does particularly well is bring a sense of gravitas to his character. A good amount of time is spent on establishing Crowhurst’s character as the plucky amateur, but the character growth comes through as Crowhurst faces the brutal isolation of his solo voyage and the financial pressures of home. Eventually, his descent into madness is understandable, and in the end, his death, though not actually shown on-screen, is extremely tragic. (It pretty much creates what TVTropes refers to as a “downer ending.”) Similarly, Rachael Weisz does a very good job of quietly portraying Clare Crowhurst as a worrying wife that has to constantly put on a brave face.

As I’ve mentioned in other film reviews, films (being a visual medium) tend to be better at portraying physical settings and atmospheric tones. In terms of setting, the film does an excellent job of setting the scene by giving us sweeping shots of the ocean and bathing us in the warm golden tones of the sun. It gives the viewer a good sense of the isolation and beauty of the sea. Gradually, the tone of the film, while awash in warm golden hues (it was filmed in England and Malta), sinks into a deep and contemplative melancholy. While certainly not a gruesome or grim film, it leaves the viewer with a sense of sadness about Crowhurst’s situation (in that respect, the film succeeds). At the very least, you come to empathize with him by the time he steps overboard.

On the downside, the film is a bit weak when it comes to its sailing scenes (not that I’m an expert yachtsman or anything). While it sets the scene well enough and the viewer can really get a sense of the isolation of the vast sea, there’s very little in the way of sailing technique displayed. Apart from the leaky hull and Crowhurst’s difficulties in finishing the various features of the boat, the film doesn’t go into the technical characteristics of trimarans, their advantages, and drawbacks, and why Crowhurst had so much (perhaps misplaced) faith in his design (essentially a derivative of the Victress-class, such as the boat sailed by Nigel Tetley in that race). I’m sure real-life multi-hulled sailors have a lot of qualms about the sailing depicted in the film. In my opinion, however, the film isn’t really about sailing. It’s about one man’s descent into madness and letting his ambition get ahead of his skill.

Additionally, I felt that the film doesn’t really give Firth enough time to delve into Crowhurst’s gradual decline into madness. It settles for the thesis that Crowhurst quickly went insane and then ended his life out of pure despair. While the film does a good job of depicting that despair, an examination of Crowhurst’s logbooks after the fact points to him going completely bonkers. He wrote some 25,000 words of rambling philosophical nonsense, ranging from mathematics and evolution to possessing God-like powers. It’s really off-the-rails. Understandably, the film chose to depict Crowhurst’s madness as auditory and visual hallucinations rather than to show him scribbling thousands of words in his log (although his strange writing is implied when Hallworth and Best see the logs at the end). To that effect, the film wisely took a “show, don’t tell” approach. While we don’t know exactly what happened to Crowhurst or what his mental state was at the end of his journey, I think the film could’ve taken more time to show his decline.

Final Verdict

The story of Donald Crowhurst is ironically more (in)famous than the Golden Globe race itself. Then again, audiences love tragic heroes and Crowhurst certainly qualifies as one. The film succeeds in capturing the beauty and isolation of the sea, while at the same time creating a lugubrious tone. Colin Firth and Rachael Weisz’s acting are subdued but effective as Donald and Clare Crowhurst. Both manage to tell the story of a couple fighting different battles at sea and at home. While not the most accurate in terms of chronological details or sailing technique, the film is best viewed with an eye for how it captures pathos. The Mercy isn’t really about the details of Crowhurst’s actual voyage, but more about the tragic end of a man who dreamed big but failed to reconcile with reality.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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