The British Heritage drama has never received the respect it deserves. While many claim that films of this ilk simply exist to provide a consensual sense of pleasure and pride, a great many of them demonstrate a finer cinematic craft and a deeper thematic core than they are given credit for: Joe Wright’s Atonement and James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day spring to mind as some strong examples.
Add James Marsh’s latest film, The Mercy, to that list. The director of The Theory of Everything has surpassed that previous effort with a similarly gorgeous yet unexpectedly introspective film that, in spite of its narrative constraints as a biopic, manages to use its story to appeal to wider ruminations on the destructive nature of hubris and the alienating effect of expectation.
The Mercy follows the true tale of ambitious businessman Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) who, through an impulsive moment of inspiration, decides upon competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a yacht race that called for the first and fastest men to circumnavigate the world. The prizes? For the former, a trophy. For the latter, a £5,000 cash prize. In the hopes of earning the £5,000, Crowhurst, a first-time sailor, puts his financial assets and family home on the line so he can construct a superior vessel, and prove something of himself in the process.
With the good wishes of his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz), Crowhurst embarks on his quest. But much to his chagrin, his plans don’t fall into place as he had so precisely prepared: it’s in this that The Mercy begins to engage in an unconventional discourse with failure. You have been forewarned, The Mercy is not the atypical feel-good tale of individual success that the trailers have promised. Instead, through Firth’s impeccable performance and the evocatively discomforting cinematography and sound design, The Mercy strives to tell a different kind of story of a man who was simply overambitious and, sadly, driven to madness through the guilt that this realisation aroused.
Starting with Firth, this is his strongest performance since The King’s Speech. In recent years, it seemed as though Firth had settled into a routine for uninspired genre films such as Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Before I Go to Sleep. But in The Mercy, Firth is placed front and centre as a tragic yet real figure of pure heart yet even purer devastation. As he begins to lose weight, the longer his voyage goes on, his emaciated form will stir an immediate emotional reaction. It’s a complex individual to play. Firth could have gone one of two ways: but he underplays it significantly, simply presenting us with a man driven to desperation, irrespective of whether his guilt is deserved.
While it’s a superlative performance, it doesn’t stand as strong as it does without Eric Gautier’s gorgeous imagery and Johnnie Burn’s haunting sound design. This is a film that builds atmosphere, even through the smallest of sets. While the cramped boat on the empty ocean only offers so much to see, this is entirely the point: the endless landscapes of water evoke an oxymoronic sense of claustrophobia, amplified by Gautier’s reliance upon close, handheld shots.
And yet the ship also acts, allegorically, as the entrapped mind of Crowhurst, through Burn’s exemplary work: with the creaks of the ships deck, the crashing of the waves against its hull and the endless, Terrence Malickian whispers of Crowhurst’s loved ones that taunt his every waking hour, The Mercy coaxes out a sense of madness in ourselves.
With its icy pacing and deliberately repetitive narrative developments, director James Marsh has really tapped into the audience’s mind-set, tethering a direct connection to Crowhurst’s experience that’ll certainly stimulate a make or break response from you. This is an acquired kind of filmmaking, demanding patience: in our action-heavy era, this might not work for you.
Furthermore, in spite of Marsh’s potent presentation of Crowhurst’s anguish, his and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ handling of Crowhurst’s family dynamic leaves a little to be desired. Until the film’s final moments, the wonderful Weisz is given little to do. She sympathises, worries yet we’re never really allowed an opportunity to understand her honest perspective: it’s a cookie-cutter depiction that disappoints amidst the plethora of fleshed-out female characters seen in films such as The Shape of Water and The Post. Crowhurst’s children are also underwritten, played generically in order to offer us another reason to identify with Crowhurst and his predicament.
But The Mercy still manages to engage in a delicate dialogue with issues of pride and ambition. Sure, these are tried and true tropes that have been perfected in films such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. But The Mercy offers a real-life tale, giving it a relevant, haunting edge that will leave you feeling a little shaken. Unlike many exposition-heavy biopics, this a dominantly sensual experience that stands as James Marsh’s finest foray into fictional filmmaking.
The Mercy is out in UK cinemas today.