Losing Direction

By Jason Solomons

They used to say of the Hollywood Mermaid Esther Williams: ‘Wet, she was a star.’ I thought of her as I watched Colin Firth in The Mercy, and how he emerged from the lake as Mr Darcy to quicken the hearts of a generation of TV viewers.

So the fact that Firth gets a right soaking in The Mercy should augur well. And of course Colin remains reliably handsome throughout, but he’s tossed about a lot more here than he ever was in Jane Austen.

Firth plays Donald Crowhurst, an impecunious Devon eccentric and inventor who, in 1968, decided to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race having never previously sailed beyond the Isle of Wight.

What’s more, he was going to do it in his own boat, constructed in Teignmouth with much of his own money (he put the house up for it) and that of a gruff second-hand car dealer (Ken Stott).

Rachel Weisz has a less spectacular time as Mrs Crowhurst, staying at home with the kids and basically answering the phone with a dread look on her pretty face every now and then. She gets a big scene near the end but it’s a bit of
a waste of her skills, this film, although she’s certainly good enough to make you wonder why on earth Crowhurst would leave a loving family to sail the seas and face humiliation.

The Mercy starts out as a gently nostalgic Ealing-style comedy about the little man taking on the world in his leaky invention, charmingly recreating 1968 Britain with loving detail – three quid to ‘fill her up’ with petrol, sponsorship deals with Lamb’s Navy Rum and Crosse & Blackwell tinned soup. David Thewlis is rather good, too, as the blunt press agent hired to drum up some publicity for his hardy fool of a client.

As the ship sets sail, we feel for Crowhurst with his brave, Colin- Firthy face, facing the wind with just the right combination of stiff upper lip and glass jaw. But it’s all been such jolly good fun up to this point, that you don’t actually think Crowhurst will go ahead with this, that he’ll turn around and opt for a night in by the fire. Except you know that it’s a true story, so he really has to sail on.

When Firth is then alone at sea, the film takes a different tack, one into the doldrums of existential despair and panic. Firth, believing he faces ruin, does some really strong work here, some of his more powerful acting for a while, wrestling with his conscience and his mortality against the vastness of the ocean. But you do get a slow, sinking feeling.

The remarkable yet unknowable story of Crowhurst has been told before – in books and in the excellent documentary Deep Water – and will be told again soon in another film, Crowhurst, by more experimental filmmaker Simon Rumley. So I won’t ruin the details of what happens as the ‘race that gripped the nation’ progresses on the waves, at least until it stops.

But here, James Marsh, a gifted, if slightly cold, director with a background in creative documentary, is tough on his protagonist and on the viewer. Marsh previously made the Oscar-winning Man on Wire and directed Eddie Redmayne to an Oscar in the Stephen Hawking story The Theory of Everything, so the superhuman exploits of ordinary men and their vaulting flirtations with hubris clearly fascinate him.

Crowhurst’s story is a bit different and hard to fathom. We want to reach inside his head and find out, and that’s where even a wet Colin Firth can’t help us. He begins to look lost, too, just when a gesture or a clue was needed.

The film drifts, not to a climax nor to a conclusion, leaving us puzzled, pondering the infinite, questioning our purpose, yet grimly hanging on for an explanation. And wondering if Colin Firth will ever take his top off again.