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Non-Review Review: The Mercy

It can be tempting when reviewing contemporary films to looks for some sort of profound meaning, some deep insight on the contemporary world reflected back on celluloid. This is particularly true in the current climate, when it seems like every piece of American pop culture is just waiting to be read as a meditation upon the tenure of President Donald J. Trump. Some of this is because politics are particularly inescapable at this moment, when a reality television star is the leader of a free world. Part of it is perhaps down to critics trying to make their own meaning in the world.

Nevertheless, The Mercy seems to be the quintessential Brexit film. A biography of (in)famous British sailor Donald Crowhurst, The Mercy is a fascinating piece of a work. A large part of the film’s success is down to how skilfully and cannily it manipulates its audience and their expectations, how heavily leans on the tropes and conventions of the standard biographical drama to wrongfoot the viewer. The Mercy starts out as one type of film, only to make a brutal swerve into another. It is a harrowing tale of grand delusion smashed against the shoals of reality.

Tough sail.

Note: This review will assume some passing familiarity with the story of British sailor Donald Crowhurst. These true-life events may be considered spoilers for audience members without any foreknowledge and who wish to see the movie entirely blind. So consider this something of a spoiler warning.

On the surface, The Mercy initially appears to be another in the long line of recent biographies exploring the lives of failures and disappointments. Quirky figures have always occupied a special place in public consciousness, whether as a cautionary tale or as a freak show, but contemporary cinema has truly embraced the fascinating lives of those who tried and failed. In recent years, examples include Florence Foster Jenkins, Eddie the Eagle, I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist.

Perhaps these failures speak to modern audiences, reflecting an admiration for those who could not accomplish, but attempted anyway. These films operate on a sliding scale of sympathy for their protagonists, but generally generate some small measure of affection for the commitment. Florence Foster Jenkins, Eddie the Eagle and The Disaster Artist almost paint these failures as heroic, celebrating the disruptive elements who dared operate outside of prescribed limitations. I, Tonya is more ambiguous, allowing its audience to make up their own minds.

Pushing the boat out.

In its opening act, The Mercy seems like a very conventional example of this now-familiar genre. The film embraces the enthusiasm that Donald Crowhurst demonstrates for his objective. Crowhurst famously competed in a race to become the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone and without stopping. This was a particularly ambitious effort, given that Crowhurst had never spent any extended time on the water. It is a foolish effort, one that any sane observer would recognise as doomed from the outset. There was no logical way that this could work.

The first half-hour of The Mercy follows a very conventional narrative playbook, as the audience watches Crowhurst’s obsession grow. Crowhurst designs his own boat, claiming to have figured out a way to travel faster than his competitors. Crowhurst mortgages his house and puts up his company as collateral on investment in his plan, placing his back against the wall. Crowhurst watches as his boat is constructed of substandard material, and as his team are rushed to help him hit an artificial deadline.

Maps to the stars.

In these scenes, Crowhurst offers all manner of justifications for his plan; he wants to ensure financial stability for his children, he wants to promote his small electronics company, he ants to accomplish something for the sake of having accomplished it. However, The Mercy hints at a more basic motivation for his actions. “He wanted to be famous,” reflects the sailor’s wife, in one of the film’s most candid moments.

These storybeats are very familiar, and the audience understands the manner in which they build. These biographies focus on outsider characters who are repeatedly assured that they cannot actually do what they want to do, but somehow manage to do it anyway. The arc of that opening act is very consciously designed to build towards a triumphant climax, the story structured in such a way that audiences unfamiliar with the tale will be expected Crowhurst to succeed against all odds and at least steal some victory from the jaws of defeat and humiliation. Look at the poster.

“You can almost see it…”

There is something very canny in this set-up, particularly the way in which The Mercy invites comparisons to the current political situation in Britain. Indeed, early in the film, characters seize upon Crowhurst as an archetypal British figure. One observer embraces Crowhurst’s ridiculous plan because it speaks to him of that “Churchill spirit” and the “derring-do” that is so fundamental to British identity. Crowhurst becomes the embodiment of that little nation that accomplished so much in the world, and invested so much in its influence and its reach.

After all, the Brexit parallels practically write themselves. Much like modern day Britain, Crowhurst is venturing out into the wider world alone. Much like modern day Britain, Crowhurst is repeatedly warned that he is ill-equipped to deal with the realities of life out in the world. Much like modern day Britain, Crowhurst sets sail anyway. Perhaps, like so many modern Britons, he is committed by virtue and pride; he has said that he will do this stupid and dangerous thing (he estimates only a fifty percent chance of survival) and so he commits to doing it.

As the Crowhurst flies.

The opening act of The Mercy plays almost like pro-Brexit propaganda. There are sweet stories of great rewards and phenomenal achievements, all within reach of those who dare. Crowhurst seems to genuinely believe that it is possible for him to accomplish this impossible task in spite of all those “naysayers”, perhaps because of his indomitable can-do British attitude. Crowhurst is under no illusions, knowing that it will be tough. But the first half-hour of The Mercy is structured in such a way as to make it seem possible.

And then reality comes crashing down. The Mercy is absolutely brutal in its depiction of how Crowhurst’s fantasies are annihilated by contact with the larger world, when he finds himself facing all of the problems and all of the limitations that everybody warned him about. Helmuth von Moltke once argued that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In this case, the enemy is reality itself.

Beach’s own.

There is a palpable sense of desperation to Crowhurst’s situation, ably brought to life through Colin Firth’s searing performance and James Marsh’s claustrophobic direction. As these problems come to bear, as Crowhurst is forced to confront the reality of his situation, he begins to improvise and exaggerate. He distorts a reality that he cannot stand to acknowledge. Meanwhile, these lies are exaggerated and heightened by an eager press, hungry for the opportunity to turn Crowhurst into some sort of symbolic representation of British exceptionalism.

The Mercy suffers slightly from being overly conventional in places. As much as the film works as a subversion of a familiar narrative template, Scott Burns’ script leans a little bit too heavily on the expected beats. Even as the film deconstructs its heroic story, it constantly flashes back to happy family members to fill what should be extended and tortured silences on the high seas. These familial flashbacks undercut both the isolation that Crowhurst is supposed to be experiencing and brutality of the story being told.

Ship shape.

Indeed, The Mercy struggles slightly with its tone and its approach to Crowhurst. The film lacks the confidence and style that elevates I, Tonya. Colin Firth affords the character a lot of dramatic weight and sympathy; the audience clearly understands his psychology and his motivations. In the scenes with Crowhurst trapped alone on the boat, as he contemplates the disaster that he has created, the audience cannot help but feel sorry for the sailing enthusiast.

However, The Mercy over-eggs the pudding slightly, working hard to shift as much blame away from Crowhurst as possible. The movie glosses over the fact that Crowhurst made his own decisions that brought him to that point, against the advice of almost any sane human being. Instead, The Mercy insists that blame for the resulting disaster lies entirely with the media or the investors, both of whom came to exert considerable control over the narrative. The Mercy downplays the importance of Crowhurst’s agency at the start of the narrative, perhaps afraid of alienating the audience.

Word to the Weisz.

Still, The Mercy is a powerful and clever piece of cinema, one that is incredibly timely.

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