The prestige biopic can seem a pretty bolted-down genre in terms of narrative possibility, but that’s not to say it provides a uniform audience experience: To the well-informed viewer and the one with no advance knowledge of the subject, a single film can proceed along very different terms. “The Mercy” is one such biopic. A sober, contemplative study of British amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, and his ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a high-stakes international yacht race, it toggles doughty underdog spirit with insistent melancholy from the get-go — though at what point it tilts from stout-hearted adventure to a more mournful reflection on hubris depends on what you know going in of the race’s outcome.
Directed with even-keeled intelligence by James Marsh, and buoyed by a performance of customary reserve and resolve from Colin Firth, “The Mercy” tells its story — once headline material, now poignantly little-remembered — about as well as it can be told. Yet there’s no denying it’s a muted, disconsolate affair, one that by necessity shrinks before viewers’ eyes into something less rousing and noble than what they were initially promised, rather as Crowhurst saw his own dreams slip into saltwater somewhere around the South Atlantic. Released in the U.K. in time to qualify for BAFTA consideration, the film has otherwise kept a markedly low profile since completion; with no awards attention or tailwind from the festival circuit, it will be counting on the marquee appeal of Firth and Rachel Weisz — dignified but over-qualified in the role of Crowhurst’s waiting wife Clare — to lure audiences into its solemn proposition.
“Men do not decide to become extraordinary,” said Edmund Hillary. “They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” This quote opens “The Mercy,” and it’s both an apt and ambiguous lead-in to the story of Crowhurst — a man who certain set out to accomplish something no less epic than scaling Everest, but was foiled by the disparity between his mighty ambition and his rather less remarkable capabilities. A mild-mannered family man and engineering entrepreneur in the English seaside town on Teignmouth, he is introduced in the film attempting to launch a business selling his invention the Navicator — an advanced directional finder, and Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay makes thankfully light weather of that heavy irony — at sailing conventions, with only sketchy success.
The family’s financial situation is tightening, and it’s that pressure, rather than any greater hunger for glory, that in 1968 motivates Crowhurst to enter the inaugural Golden Globe Race, an around-the-world race that promises celebrity and financial reward to the victorious. From the outset, it’s an improbable quest for a mere weekend hobbyist of a sailor, and “The Mercy” doesn’t gloss over the inadequacy of his and his team’s preparations. Though Burns’ dialogue is peppered with such hopeful epithets as “dreams are the seeds of action,” a note of quiet fretfulness settles early on in the lean, polite filmmaking, as well as in Firth’s pinched demeanor.
Were this the realm of fiction, sheer sports-movie formula would lead us to expect Crowhurst to emerge triumphant against all odds and narrative evidence. “The Mercy” cannily nods to this kind of mental story-shaping with its sidelong view of the public relations push that attempted to dictate Crowhurst’s unlikely-lad arc for him. Led by tabloid reporter-turned-publicist Rodney Hallworth (a broad, braying David Thewlis), the sponsor-baiting campaign around the humble amateur’s incredible journey was built on a kind of resilient integrity that even the most honorable of average Joes would struggle to live up to: “I see in him a part of England that has been lost,” Hallworth declares. He has no idea just how lost it’s about to get.
For if “The Mercy” retains a certain stiff-upper-lip romanticism in its opening stages — thanks in large part to the warm, buttery wash given by cinematographer Eric Gautier to Crowhurst’s domestic life, and the gentle, good-humored chemistry between Firth, Weisz and their onscreen brood — everything from the light to the creaking sound design turns a little harder once our man sets sail. As he finds himself immediately, and alarmingly, out of his league in more ways than one the film swiftly becomes a none-too-sunny survival saga, before drifting just as fluidly into more brooding moral and psychological waters: Alone and increasingly deranged, Crowhurst realizes that the only way to finish his foolhardy challenge is to fake it.
For those coming to “The Mercy” unacquainted with Crowhurst’s story — filmed several times before, though never this prominently — this is a disorienting shift in both the tone and stakes of the narrative; audiences expecting a heart-swelling emotional payoff may well leave disappointed. But Marsh pulls off the bait-and-switch with some aplomb. Even more so than in his Stephen Hawking study “The Theory of Everything,” he brings a documentarian’s curiosity and sangfroid to biopic material that lends itself to damper sentimentality, and brings it in on time to boot: At just 100 minutes, there’s scarcely time for the film’s changing currents to be too jarring. The film’s latter stages, alternating Crowhurst’s increasingly woeful plight with the growing British media circus around Clare as her faith internally crumbles, squeezes both the nerves and the heart — while finally giving Weisz, a benevolent bystander for much of the film, something to chew on.
Still, it’s primarily Firth’s showcase, and his most generous in several years. The role of Crowhurst is an ideal fit for an actor who has long specialized in a kind of wounded, compromised heroism, whether as English royalty or a romantic lead. Even when the going’s relatively good, he plays the bluffing explorer with a quizzical air, as if constantly second-guessing his own acts of bravado. “What a bloody awful decision,” he muses aloud later on — with a wistful, woebegone but faintly self-amused tone that couldn’t be more British if it tried — gazing out at the vast, glintingly beautiful expanse in which he’s stranded. A little like James Gray’s recent “The Lost City of Z,” “The Mercy” is a film about finding grace in failure. Failing that, at least take in the view.