Dir: James Marsh

With: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis

Runtime: 102 minutes

BRITISH director James Marsh won an Oscar a decade ago for his documentary Man on Wire, the true story of Philippe Petit’s 42-metre tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Even though the outcome of Petit’s adventure was known, the film was a wonderfully heart-in-the-mouth affair, with more twists and turns than a heist thriller.

The Mercy finds Marsh telling the story of another adventure, albeit one that went on for a lot longer than 40-odd metres. It, too, is a tale of derring-do, but the result this time, one or two inspired moments aside, is a slog.

Marsh opens his story at the 1968 Boat Show where solo yachtsman and all-round adventurer Sir Francis Chichester is announcing a new contest, a round-the-world, non-stop race sponsored by a newspaper. In the crowd listening is Donald Crowhurst (played by Colin Firth). He is at the show punting a navigation device of his own invention, but he is not having much luck with sales. With the gizmo tailored to ocean sailing, and most of the show attendees weekend sailors only, Crowhurst’s ambition has got the better of him. It is that same longing to stretch himself that leads him to think he should take up the round-the-world challenge, despite, as his wife (Rachel Weisz) reminds him, having never sailed further than Falmouth from their home in Teignmouth.

The screenplay by Scott Z Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) sketches in why Crowhurst might have taken such a decision. Thus far, his ambition had led him to starting his own business and running for the local council. But he is a dreamer. While his wife keeps the domestic show on the road with little money, Crowhurst is the fun father, never happier than when playing with the children.

It is not long before the clouds start to gather above Crowhurst’s bid. He persuades a local caravan salesman (Ken Stott) to sponsor him but the businessman wants Crowhurst’s home and business as surety. Now his dream has become an obligation from which he dare not retreat. Next he acquires a press agent (David Thewlis). Being a former journalist, the agent is sceptical about Crowhurst’s chances but he also knows the story, plucky amateur takes on the top dogs, is one that could be a nice little earner for the months the race will take.

Crowhurst, his timetable slipping, finally gets going. His boat is not ready, the weather is against him. Those familiar with the story will know what happens next. It is a great tale but it is one that has been told many times before. There have been documentaries, small screen and big, including Deep Water (2006), which used the original tapes and film made by Crowhurst during the voyage. Add to these several dramas, plays, novels and non-fiction accounts, including the 1970 reportage classic by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (“Now filmed as The Mercy,” it says on the cover). Knowing how a story turns out need not be an insurmountable problem, as long as there remain thrills to be had in the telling, revelations and characters who retain the capacity to surprise. Here, Marsh’s film is in trouble from the off, opening as it does with a

nausea-inducing scene of the sea and bobbing along miserably from there. Save for the flashback scenes showing him with his children, Firth never looks anything other than worried, ditto Weisz.

The scenes on the boat are tough going, though some magical interludes with Crowhurst seeing whales and dolphins, and later, imagining a horse on board, lighten the mood. In moments such as these we get a glimpse of how much richer the film could have been had it not taken such a straight down the line, one-note approach to the story.

Similarly, the scenes on land, as the press agent begins to whip up interest in Crowhurst, or he phones his family at home to let them know how he is faring, ought to generate excitement, but they play out with all the pace and homespun style of a Sunday night television drama rather than a movie.

Matters become more engrossing in the film’s second half as Crowhurst tries to keep body, soul and mind together, but by this point it will be a rare viewer who has not succumbed to exhaustion.