Donald Crowhurst’s participation in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe race, his attempt to become a renowned round-the-world sailor, and how he came to grief after falsifying his sailing records, has been told in books and in the outstanding 2006 documentary Deep Water.
With ‘The Mercy’ we have a dramatised version of the story. Dramatisation involves choosing points of emphasis to tell a story, to illustrate character, and to engage an audience. The result here is something which feels both more and less enlightening than plain fact.
The film begins with an arresting image of a girl waterskiing in front of an obviously painted backdrop. She is actually modelling for a waterski display at the Earl’s Court Boat Show, but also serves to tell us we are going to see a story based in the worlds of public images and marketing.
Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) is trying to drum up interest (and sales) for a handheld device he has invented and manufactured, the Navicator, by which sailors can fix their position (no GPS in them days). Interest is cool, sales non-existent. Crowhurst is enthralled by the appearance of Sir Francis Chichester, who had sailed around the world the year before. Chichester says the ultimate challenge will be a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation and that the Sunday Times is sponsoring the Golden Globe race. Donald’s eyes glaze over at the thought of winning the prize money and saving his business by publicising his invention.
Without consulting his family Crowhurst enters the race. A local businessman, Stanley Best (Ken Stott), puts up the money for what Donald promises will be a revolutionary trimaran ‘Teignmouth Electron’. To cover his investment, Best will receive the assets of Crowhurst’s company and the family home if the voyage is unsuccessful.
PR man Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis) promotes Donald as a plucky underdog and he becomes a national figure. Preparations fall well behind schedule. Crowhurst sets sail with the boat only half-finished when his plea for a postponement to Hallworth and Best is met with their insistence that he committed himself to taking part in the race.
At sea, ‘Teignmouth Electron’ soon shows her deficiencies in the deep ocean. Crowhurst has to bail her out by bucket, and his innovative self-righting mechanism is ruined in a storm. If he goes on he will die, if he pulls out he will be a ruined man. To save face he posts a few fake positions to show he is making good progress. To his horror, Hallworth embellishes these to make Crowhurst appear a record-breaking sailor of “Chichester-like” stature. Trapped by his initial deception Crowhurst is forced to fake an entire voyage.
The strain of doing this, his homesickness and lack of contact with his family, slowly erodes his mental state. The race is so tough six competitors out of nine retire. When one of the remaining three sinks (pushing his boat too hard to beat the ‘record-breaking’ Crowhurst) Donald is in the position of being hailed a winner, only to have the whole deception exposed. By now a mental wreck, Donald disappears and ‘Teignmouth Electron’ is found drifting in mid-Atlantic. Back ashore, abandoned by Hallworth, his family faces a media frenzy as the ‘fake voyage’ becomes headline news.
The first thing to say about ‘The Mercy’ is that it is superbly acted. Colin Firth demonstrates Crowhurst’s initial breezy confidence, followed by a descent into mental breakdown without missing a beat or striking a single false note. It is an enthralling piece of work and rather brave to attempt to inhabit a character of such contrasting and depressing aspects. As his wife Clare Rachel Weisz has a less compelling role, but is effective in showing the tension of wanting to support her husband’s dreams while being left to handle the reality of everyday life, having to apply for free school meals because she has no income. Thewlis and Stott also score as the slightly shady publicist and the hard-headed businessman.
The big question is: does ‘The Mercy’ tell its story truthfully? The fact is that although he had the ability to cut a dash and could strike a pose as a gallant sailor, Crowhurst was a flawed character. Earlier in life he had tried his hand as a racing driver and pilot, and virtually been drummed out of the army and the RAF for getting into various scrapes. He was basically a fantasist with dreams beyond his capabilities.
Colin Firth’s Crowhurst is a decent family man who gets into difficulties due to the machinations of others, particularly Hallworth putting what we would call ‘spin’ on his story. It is more likely that, when he found his yacht was unsafe, Crowhurst did intend to deceive, not to win the race but to keep his family afloat (no pun intended). His parents lost all their money in the late 1940s, a childhood trauma he did not want to inflict on his own family, and something not referred to in the film. Also not referred to is Stanley Best's offer to write off Crowhurst's debt if he felt it was too dangerous to go on - Crowhurst himself chose to go on. Clare Crowhurst’s fiery speech to journalists, accusing them of forcing her husband to his doom just to get a good story simply never happened, and it reflects a rather more 21st Century view of the media.
The film really delivers in its depiction of the physical reality of deep ocean sailing. It is a frightening experience. On his first really demanding voyage Crowhurst jumps at the banging of waves against his boat’s hull, hears the scream of wind in the rigging, feels the wobbling of the mast under his weight as he climbs it, and suffers claustrophobic living conditions and emotional deprivation and isolation. These experiences are vividly brought to life and have a real impact on the viewer.
If the film has one glaring flaw, it is a lack of integrity in showing how Crowhurst actually died. ‘Teignmouth Electron’ was found unmanned and the only item missing was her heavy brass chronometer. It seems likely Crowhurst would have used the chronometer as a weight to hold his body underwater and stepped over the side. The film shows Colin Firth throwing the chronometer overboard, follows it down beneath the sea, then cuts back to an empty boat – did he jump, or did he fall? The film totally fails to take a stand on this and it is a frustrating gap in what has been a compelling narrative.
Filming was completed in 2015 but took another three years to reach the screen, and problems are noticeable. There is a sense that the filmmakers never really got to grips with the material, or settled on a point of view. Was Crowhurst villain or victim, an out and out con man or a misguided dreamer? The final position seems to fall unsatisfactorily between the two: yes, he sent out false reports, but he was trapped by what others made of them. In fact, Crowhurst built his own trap and couldn't find a way out - this dilemma finally destroyed his sanity.
‘The Mercy’ is well-made, very well acted, and has excellent production values and photography. Ultimately, however, it tries too hard to make Donald Crowhurst a victim of forces outside himself. The sad fact is he was driven to do what he did (enter the race, try to fake his navigation, then suffer mental collapse) through the flaws in his own personality. This would have made for a less conventional, harder to make, but more rewarding, film.