The Mercy film review: Colin Firth can't save this strangely antiseptic retelling of a nautical mystery

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In The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh dramatised Stephen Hawking’s triumph over adversity. His new film, The Mercy also draws from a real life story, but this time the protagonist’s trajectory is inexorably, hopelessly downwards.

An amateur sailor from Teignmouth, Donald Crowhurst became famous when he took part in the first Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, in which competitors attempted to sail solo non-stop around the world, and never returned. Not only was his boat found without him on it – no-one knows if he jumped or fell overboard – but it was discovered that he’d lied about his location.

The Mercy attempts to explain his actions, but never really gets to grips with its problematic central character, played with conviction by Colin Firth. Early scenes present Crowhurst as a family man and inventor of electronic nautical devices who, despite an apparently happy home life, longs for adventure. When the race is announced at the Earls Court Boat Show in 1968, he jumps at the opportunity to do something extraordinary.

Crowhurst’s wife (Rachel Weisz) humours her spouse, thinking he will change his mind, unaware he’s signed a contract to forfeit their house and business if he pulls out. Thus he ends up competing in a vessel, the Teignmouth Electron, that is unfinished and unprepared for the challenges ahead.

When the yacht is towed out to sea on the day of departure, Marsh – whose early work includes a disturbing documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip – films it like a floating coffin. Crowhust, riddled with doubt and fear, goes to it with the look of a condemned man.

Once in open water, it’s clear that he and the craft are out of their depth. Faced with almost certain death, and trapped within a catch-22 of his own making, the hapless yachtsman eventually decides to lie regarding his whereabouts. As his supposed progress makes headlines, the publicity becomes a guilty burden, and thoughts of home that should sustain him assume a bitter-sweet tang.

Sadly, constant cutting between sea and land means The Mercy lacks the immersive quality of JC Chandor’s gripping one-man-at-sea drama All is Lost, which managed to go beyond its particulars to reflect on globalisation, mortality and spirituality. Marsh’s film lacks such scope and ambition, notwithstanding a last-minute grasp at cosmic meaningfulness.

Firth tries to find depth but the screenplay never allows him to get under the surface of Crowhurst, to discover what drove him to throw everything away for a pipe-dream. Ultimately, The Mercy splashes around in the shallows of character and psychology, rather than diving into the deep blue.