Watching James Marsh’s “The Mercy,” I kept thinking about another film Marsh made, the documentary “Man on Wire.” That film was my favorite movie of 2008, documenting Philippe Petit’s exhaustive planning and preparation to become the first person in the world to cross a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers.
“The Mercy” also looks at a real-life feat, a man’s attempt to be the first to circumnavigate the globe solo in a boat without stopping. But this adventure goes disastrously wrong. “The Mercy” has a one-night-only screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at Marcus Point and New Vision Fitchburg 18.
Colin Firth plays Donald Crowhurst, an Englishman who in 1968 entered a round-the-world boat race. While his other competitors were seasoned sailors, Crowhurst was an inventor who rarely sailed beyond the harbor of his seaside town.
Crowhurst’s company came up with clever inventions that would aid sailors in their travels, such as a device called a Navicator that helped sailors determine their location. Entering a boat stocked with such devices in the race could be great publicity for his business, Crowhurst reasons.
But in the rush to get ready for the race, Crowhurst and his backers (including David Thewlis as a seedy publicist) seem more focused on doing interviews and making headlines than in getting the boat ready to sail. Despite his growing unease, Crowhurst puts on a brave face for his wife (Rachel Weisz), not wanting to endure the shame that would come with pulling out of the race. Also, he’s mortgaged his business and his house to fund it, and will lose everything if he doesn’t make the voyage.
When Crowhurst sets sail around the world, he’s less prepared than he normally is for a Sunday afternoon jaunt around the harbor. It’s as if Philippe stepped out on the tightrope without any practice or planning whatsoever, just hoping for the best.
Weisz and Thewlis give strong supporting performances, although Weisz doesn’t get much more to do than play the long-suffering, supportive wife back home. But this is really a one-man show for Firth, as we spend long stretches with him on the boat, watching his stiff-upper-lip British façade splinter and crumble in the face of harsh weather, mounting mechanical problems and punishing loneliness.
“A man alone on a boat is more alone than any man alive,” Crowhurst is told at the beginning of the film, and Firth makes you feel it.
Crowhurst’s desperate voyage remains a notorious historical event in Britain to this day, but it’s little-known to Americans. So I won’t spoil the true-to-life twists and turns that his journey takes, including a last-ditch scheme to save face. But it’s a fascinating tale that explores themes of masculinity, pride and guilt. Would Crowhurst be more of a man if he quit in disgrace, or if he sailed on to almost certain death?
The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (“Side Effects”) gets a little cluttered toward the end, relying on unnecessary bits of surrealism to convey Crowhurst’s deteriorating mental state. The climax is also a little clumsy at underscoring its message of blaming the media for building up ordinary people like Crowhurst into heroes, and then tearing them down.
All “The Mercy” really needs is Firth and the unforgiving ocean.