You know how it is. You wait decades for a movie about doomed amateur yachtsman and conman Donald Crowhurst and then two come along at once. 

Still to find a release date, we can look forward to Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst, his hallucinatory, Nic Roeg-flavoured take on the true-life tale already covered by Louise Osmond and Jerry Routhwell’s brilliant 2006 documentary Deep Water. Up first however is The Theory Of Everything director James Marsh’s bigger budget, more mainstream account of Crowhurst’s folly, The Mercy. 

A weekend sailor and engineer/inventor, Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) dreams of a life of adventure and glory and sees his chance when the Sunday Times, inspired by the sailing achievements of yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, sponsors a solo round-the-world yacht race, the Golden Globe Race. 

With his business on shaky footing, Crowhurst sees the race as an opportunity to turn around his ailing fortunes by designing and building a revolutionary new boat, a 41-foot trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, and packing it with his own state-of-the-art safety features. Convincing a local caravan mogul (Ken Stott) to invest in the project, Crowhurst stakes his reputation, his business and the family home on winning the race, enlisting a crafty press agent (David Thewlis) to drum up support and sponsorship from great British brands like OXO, becoming a national hero as a symbol of the plucky English underdog. 

Once at sea however, disaster strikes when the barely finished ship, launched before it was seaworthy, is damaged and the inexperienced Crowhurst finds himself ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the 7-month circumnavigation of the globe. Realising that he has little chance of survival if he continues but acutely aware that failure will leave himself and his family destitute, Crowhurst comes up with a desperate plan to fake it, radioing in false positions while loitering in the calmer waters of the South Atlantic. 

But, cut off and alone, tormented by the guilt and enormity of his deception, by the solitude of his journey, by the financial ruin that awaits him at home, the desperate Crowhurst slowly loses his grip on reality, his sanity disintegrating as he spirals into madness… 

A man undone by hubris and fate, Donald Crowhurst’s story is a fascinating one as Osmond and Routhwell’s documentary has already proved. Drawing on the films, tapes and writings Crowhurst produced during his fateful voyage (the BBC thoughtfully having provided him with a camera and supply of film for a prospective documentary upon his return), Osmond and Routhwell’s Deep Water is a tense, fascinating, ultimately tragic study of a fundamentally decent, if irresponsible, man cracking when pushed beyond his limits and abilities. 

Unfortunately, despite a towering performance from Colin Firth who has rarely been better, James Marsh’s The Mercy never quite engages, lurching from the gentle, almost comic, drama of the first half or so of the film where Firth’s Crowhurst is a benevolent dreamer halfway between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Dick Van Dyke and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’s Richard Dreyfuss, into the darkness and tragedy of the second half, Firth’s magnificent obsession consuming him.   

While the film boasts an excellent cast (Thewlis, Stott, Rachel Weisz as Mrs Crowhurst), it is, quite literally, all at sea right up until it’s cast adrift on the high seas. At it’s best, when Firth’s Crowhurst is alone on the boat, slowly unraveling, his perverse sense of English fair play compelling him to keep two sets of logs, one fake, one the real that will eventually be the weight around his neck that drags him to the depths and drowns him, The Mercy is reminiscent of J.C. Chandor’s wonderful All Is Lost, arguably one of the most nail-biting, intense films I’ve seen in the last five years. But at it’s weakest, the interminable landlocked first half, this BBC production feels like what it will eventually be, the post-Call The Midwife movie. 

As The Mercy staggers from frothy, blinding sunlight to the heart of darkness, Firth’s haunting, moving, aching performance deserves the far better film his solitary, seabound scenes hint at.    

Movie Review: The Mercy
2.5Overall Score
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