A cinematic depiction of Donald Crowhurst’s story turns a challenge to single-handedly sail around the world without any professional preparation into an analysis of human’s chances in a battle with nature.
The Mercy might initially appear a little slow, especially because James Marsh (known for another biopic The Theory of Everything) takes his time to set up the ground for the story. If you’re willing to give it time, however, the brilliant story of a man versus the ocean unfolds in full glory, skillfully switching between two different spaces and interweaving them into a story. Only then, the audience can compare these two realities: the safety and calmness of home somewhere on the English coast against the dramatic, menacing spaces on the open sea. Rooting for the character all along, we feel his torment only when the film starts leading us astray. It’s repeatedly giving us hope and taking it away from us within minutes, playing with our assumptions (given that the film is based on a real story, it might be less surprising for some).
The film does a wonderful job when it comes to talking about the pressure put on one man to deliver on all projections from others. Because of toxic masculinity that hushes many men, it’s an issue that’s constantly been difficult to talk about. Here, Donald decides to go on a solo trip around the world partially because it’s something that could make his children proud of him. Then, an extra pressure from his publicist and investor kicks in. Despite issues that keep on delaying the trip, it feels like there’s no way out because people have already put a certain label on him – and a lot of money they expect the return on. The pride returns multiple times over the trip, when the protagonist feels the need to cover up his lack of experience that throws his brave idea overboard. Portrayed by Colin Firth trapped in a confined space, it becomes particularly effective when he struggles to fix every problem he wasn’t prepared for. Finally, his visions deliver a painful self-realisation – but even then, he doesn’t let go of his pride. He doubts his decisions and tearing himself apart between honesty and lies, home and the ocean, winning and losing. But it can be read also in a much wider context, applicable to all of those who have ever struggled with exaggerated expectations.
Firth takes on the complexity of the main character torn apart by the idea that pushed him into the heart of the storm. He performs an epitome of a successful person: he’s got a loving family, his own company that’s prosperous enough to allow his kids to have a roof over his head, and a supportive cycle of friends. Managing the switch, he swings from normality to madness when he’s exposed to the force of nature. When his character faces the inevitable, he depicts the process of turning insane as a multifaceted Fata Morgana he succumbs to.
Nevertheless, it’s Rachel Weisz that helps us analyse the broader picture. Her heroine Clare suffers as much as her husband and risks even more than the main character, and the actress steals the show in the second half of the film. Her husband decides to put all his eggs in one basket, sacrificing even his home and company, but it’s her who has to deal with consequences – for instance, asking if her family is eligible for benefits and unable to give any concrete answers. The actress externalises the struggle of a single mother waiting for her man to return from the seas like many other women before her, dealing with the longing and becoming the head of the family. And she takes over the finale, wrenching us with her endless pain and bitterness fuelled by the others.
Speaking about pride and humility in a clash with nature, The Mercy doesn’t fail to make us think about the deeper messages contained within the plot. Even if its pace takes the wind out of its sails initially, it’s worth waiting for the conclusion. It grows on the spectator, striking us with potent comparisons and metaphors as the story unfolds.
The Mercy opens in the UK on the 9th of February 2018.
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