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The Mercy review – Colin Firth steers Donald Crowhurst to likability

Interesting casting … Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy.
Interesting casting … Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy.

The true story of Donald Crowhurst is about Englishness, sadness and shame. It’s been retold many times on screen since investigative journalist Nick Tomalin co-wrote a pioneering 1970 book about him, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. This new version has Colin Firth as the tragic Quixote fibber of the high seas, Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare and David Thewlis as Rodney Hallworth, his breezy press agent.

In 1968, Crowhurst was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman, trying to market his own self-invented handheld navigational device. The Sunday Times had launched a round-the-world yacht race with a big cash prize, and (perhaps irresponsibly) did not limit entrants to those with proven experience. Poor, plucky Crowhurst had a go, in a boat built with money from investors and sponsors who would need to be repaid if he didn’t stay the course. After a few weeks at sea, it became clear that his boat wasn’t up to it, and rather than turn back and face humiliation and financial ruin – and disappoint his children – Crowhurst started radioing in fake coordinates (in the days before sophisticated GPS would make such a fraud impossible) creating the illusion that he was making terrific progress, while actually hanging back, like a lazy kid on a crosscountry run sneaking behind the bushes and planning to rejoin the racers when they finally return on the last leg. But the looming possibility of discovery, disgrace or actual death at sea drove Crowhurst to a terrible mental crisis.

Colin Firth is interesting casting as Crowhurst: he is very good at suggesting the man’s decency and likability as well as his perfectly genuine courage and ingenuity. But the weird, slightly scary streak of self-delusion is less clear in his portrayal. Eric Gautier’s cinematography wittily recreates a kind of 1960s Super-8 look and there is great period detail from production designers Peter Francis and Jon Henson.

The problem is that Colin Firth looks like a natural leader, a natural winner: he is more of a Francis Chichester, not a Donald Crowhurst. As Crowhurst spiralled into despair and madness, another type of actor might have wanted to lose more weight and pulled out a few more method stops. Well, Firth is probably right not to: there is more subtlety in his approach. But the problem is that the terrible decision to fake, and then the decision to abandon the fake, happen internally, inside the head of a man all alone at sea, and it is very difficult for any film to dramatise these events. This one, gallantly concerned to be sympathetic to Crowhurst, finally flinches from exploring what everyone finds so horribly fascinating – the denouement, embarrassing, bizarre, shocking. The underdog hero is a cheat, but one with quite a lot in common with Captain Oates. The title is taken from Crowhurst’s final philosophical ramblings in his logbook as his self-created ordeal drew to its end: “It is finished. It is the mercy.” The mercy is what this film extends to Crowhurst. A more unforgiving approach might have been more interesting.

This article titled "The Mercy review – Colin Firth steers Donald Crowhurst to likability" was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Friday 9 February 2018 09.00am

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