Forced to choose between the lesser of two evils – financial ruin and public humiliation for pulling out of a round-the-world sailing competition for which he has staked his house and his business; or certain death but saving face by relaying fab but fabricated updates of his voyage to his praying family and preying media back home – struggling inventor and amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) comes to the following blunt conclusion: “What a bloody awful decision.”
A similar thought, I imagine, which ran through the minds of Firth and his fellow cast members – Rachel Weisz as his supportive wife Clare, David Thewlis as his sozzled publicist Rodney Hallworth and Ken Stott and his ebullient backer Stanley “The Caravan King” Best – when they realised that The Mercy was not what Hallworth called “a story of derring-do waiting to be told” but one of deary-me crawling to a fold. Hence the yawning gap of two years between filming and release.
The only thing which director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have succeeded in achieving is not their initial aim of making a drama out of a crisis, but rather a crisis out of a drama. And a flat, unoriginal and instantly forgettable one at that, which not even Firth and Weisz can rescue from the murky depths towards which it plummets.
Dramatic tension is lacking; likewise change in pace and inventive camerawork; even the wild and majestic sea is reduced to the lowly ranks of background artist. The main flaw being that neither Marsh nor Burns have decided on a primary focus: man against nature, man against human nature, the pursuit of dreams against the brick wall of reality, the list goes on. Only Weisz comes out of it with any sort of credit; her subtle performance saying so much with so little. But her grieving diatribe against the media comes out of nowhere and like Crowhurst’s missing body sinks like a stone