Within moments of The Mercy’s gadget market beginnings, it becomes clear that there is a definite fascination with what we perceive as “truth”. As liberating as the truth can be, it is also a particularly cruel force. So cruel that many people will do anything they can to avoid facing it, preferring their own fantasies to placate that nagging worry in the backs of their minds. Many a filmmaker have made bank on the idea of the fantasy versus stone-cold reality, like the cinematic illusions of Christopher Nolan or the dreamwalking of David Lynch. Under the eye of director James Marsh (Man On Wire, The Theory Of Everything) and in the hands of writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects), there is no such trickery. Whatever illusions or dreams they cast for the audience exist solely in the head of a man who thought he could do what no-one else had done before.
As lively as Colin Firth is in the main role, showing his aptitude for that oh-so-British stiff upper lip, his is not the role of the comedic foil. Instead, his role is one of soul-crushing tragedy. Where films like USSR’s Race Of The Century turned this real-life story into one of societal critique, this aims closer to the personal and hubristic to show someone in an increasingly impossible situation. A situation where our lead has no-one to truly blame but himself, failing to see just how far his ambitions had pushed him until almost everything he had depended on his success. It takes the familiar underdog tone of quite a few biopics of late and highlights a rather depressing truth: sometimes, the underdog never even gets past its leash.
Well, “failing to see” might be a bit harsh. Considering how much he puts of himself and his livelihood into this venture around the world, maybe he’s just looking for an escape. Maybe he’s just trying to make his mark in a world where every point on the map has already been plotted. Or maybe he’s just someone who got in way over his head and ended up having to pay the price for it. Whatever the ultimate reason, the film doesn’t cast aspersions on Donald Crowhurst.
Through Burns’ down-to-earth scripting, Marsh’s familiarity with bringing the real world to the big screen, Éric Gautier’s queasy camera work and anxious string sections courtesy of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario), we are given a door into the man’s head. One full of self-doubt, regret, increasing pressure and a reluctance to admit that everything has gone wrong. The reality behind every frame on the screen manifests as not only an uncompromising look at how our own expectations can spell our doom, but also a refreshingly honest diversion from the usual wispiness that hovers over a lot of modern biopics. It refrains from romanticising Crowhurst’s mission, instead showing an admission that the hopeless dreamer archetype that Hollywood loves to fetishise has a dark underbelly. The title is a lie; the truth has no mercy.