Here's a man vs. nature sailing story with a significant difference. Rather than a rousing testament to the human spirit, James Marsh's The Mercy examines instead a failure to triumph, the kind of tragedy that rarely gets blown up into a movie. In real life, when all the signs are telling you not to try to sail your experimental prototype sailboat around the world, you probably should resist the urge to do so. So it goes with Colin Firth's Donald Crowhurst, a British inventor and hobbyist sailor who in 1968 entered The Sunday Times' first Golden Globe Race, a nonstop, globe-circumnavigating solo yacht competition. Crowhurst's avowed reasons for this choice were, first, to win attention for a directional finder of his own invention and then a pileup of financial troubles. Whatever his thinking, the real Crowhurst set off in his untested trimaran and became a national celebrity when word of his boat's unprecedented speeds reached home. As Marsh's film dramatizes with lean, no-nonsense power, rather than stiff-upper-lipping through the tumultuous Antarctic Ocean, Crowhurst in actuality was almost immediately overwhelmed by single-handedly sailing the vessel; in truth, he was reporting false coordinates while he dithered in the Atlantic. His plan: Rather than risk certain death, he'd wait for competing sailors returning home, and then slip back himself, in last place.
Everything goes wrong, of course. Other racers drop out, leaving Crowhurst in the lead -- and then come the storms. Firth is all panicked reserve in the role of Crowhurst, and Rachel Weisz invests the familiar stay-at-home role with antsy, agonized spirit as the wife of the doomed man, facing the truth that her family's lives will never be what they once were.