The Theory of Everything director James Marsh and Bourne Ultimatum scribe Scott Z. Burns join forces on this true story story chronicling the attempt by hobbyist Donald Crowhurst to become the first man to sail unbroken around the world. A period piece starring Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz and a litany of British talent including Ken Stott and David Thewlis, The Mercy has all the makings of an underdog survivalist classic, what it comes up with instead however is a thematic mess of a film that raises more questions than it ever possibly should.
Without delving into specific historical plot points regarding Crowhurst, Burns’ screenplay rather distractingly struggles with a lack of identifiable antagonist, casting a judgemental gaze in every direction it can without ever justifying any of it. Of particular note is a concluding judgment on the press – delivered with ever-reliable poise by Weisz – yet results in a bewildering indictment apropos of literally nothing contained elsewhere within the story. Business partners are framed shadily by the camera, whilst Jóhann Jóhannsson’s otherwise faultless score heavily signifies them as villains – again, for no discernible reason any audience member could possibly deduce.
The Mercy plays its hand as a survivalist tale, reaching for underdog triumph, yet, despite being nudged by its own story to deal with the shortcomings of a man obviously out of his depth, Marsh’s film instead elects to give Crowhurst a free pass in lieu of playing what can only be described as an unfounded blame game with everyone else in its character roster. Firth, for all intents and purposes, is isolated from and immune to this – the bulk of his story obviously taking place far away from the real-world antics of The Mercy – but its in watching Rachel Weisz give it her all in the face of that charade that becomes quite wearing quite quickly.
To Marsh’s credit, The Mercy delivers the visual goods with aplomb, cinematographer Eric Gautier and production designed Jon Henson absolutely the unsung heroes here. Jóhannsson’s score, too, breathes a sense of wonder and simultaneous despair into proceedings, but shedding scripting and an astonishingly misguided sense of blame put paid to Crowhurst’s tale more than any ocean storm or hull rupture ever could. The Mercy can, at times, drift effortlessly into being outright boring, and, though Firth and Weisz are more than capable of lifting their audience out of that, Burns’ writing is persistently poor enough to pull them right back in.