The Mercy

★★★☆☆

Colin Firth does brave, moving work as sailor Donald Crowhurst in a somewhat successful biopic

Colin Firth is showstopping in the story of Donald Crowhurst's infamous 1968 attempt to sail solo around the world. Driven by the substantial prize money and fame attached to the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and inspired by Sir Francis Chichester's feat, Crowhurst undertook the challenge to save his failing business. Despite being only a weekend sailor, he persuaded an investor to build him a yacht. But his company and family home were staked against the sponsorship of his voyage.

With the savvy efforts of press agent Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis) Crowhurst's chances are bigged up and he lands endorsements, from OXO to Lamb's Navy Rum. Meanwhile the 'wife who waits', Clare (Rachel Weisz), understandably frets that Donald is in over his head. Her anxiety is quickly justified as her husband meets with one disaster after another. Realising he is incapable of completing the race, Donald embarks on a tragic deception. Crowhurst's solitude, peril and impending financial ruin certainly seem to have driven him to insanity; since the BBC provided him with equipment to document his adventure, a wealth of real material exists which chronicles this mental deterioration at sea.

The supporting cast and period detail are fine, but essentially this is Firth's film and he does brave, moving work as the disheartened dreamer spiralling down into despair and madness. It's an extraordinary physical and psychological journey he is reliving, and his disintegration is painful to watch.

Somehow, though, one takes exception to Weisz's distraught speech to the assembled media when the sorry truth emerges: everyone is to blame, except Donald. Director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything, Man on Wire) has abundant experience with true stories. Yet it cannot have escaped his notice that the 2006 documentary Deep Water – assembled from Crowhurst's 16mm films, tape recordings and journals – remains the more riveting reconstruction of the sailor's dilemma and the wretched consequences.

General release from Fri 9 Feb.

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The Mercy

The true story of Donald Crowhurst (Firth), a weekend sailor who persuaded an investor to build him a yacht so that he could enter a round-the-world yacht race, with disastrous consequences. Firth does brave and moving work as Crowhurst falls apart under the stress, but the conclusion is unconvincing.