David Thewlis

The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

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Anomalisa

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13/03/16

Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most original and intriguing films of recent years – Inside John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synechdoche New York, to name but three. When I tell you that Anomalisa is created using stop frame animation, you may have preconceptions of what it’s going to be like, but I’d advise you to go along with an open mind, because in my humble opinion, there’s never been another film quite like this one. To begin with, the animation techniques employed here are extraordinary, pushing the medium to its very limits. Sometimes, particularly in close up, it’s hard to believe that you’re not actually watching real actors. And there’s something about seeing such human tragedy enacted by puppets that somehow serves to amplify the reality of the situation.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is going through a long dark night of the soul. He feels alienated from his wife and young son and stumbles through a world where everyone seems to have the same face. This is doubly unfortunate, because he’s a motivational speaker and the author of a critically acclaimed self-help book aimed at business people, intended to teach them how to deal more effectively with their customers. Michael embarks on a trip to Cincinnati where he is to deliver a keynote speech and his journey unfolds in more-or-less real time, capturing the alienating experience perfectly – the meaningless chatter of a taxi driver, the disturbingly beatific gaze of a hotel receptionist, the disconcerting anonymity of a hotel room. Michael contacts an old flame, who he hasn’t seen for years, in the hope that he’ll rekindle some passion with her, but it ends badly. She clearly still harbours a grudge. Shortly afterwards, he chances upon Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) an avid fan who has come all the way from Akron, Ohio to catch his speech. Sensing an opportunity, Michael embarks on a clumsy seduction…

There are only three voice artists at work here – Tom Noonan handles all the other roles, male and female, a move which at first seems like an affectation, but as the story moves increasingly  into a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak condition of human interaction, it all begins to make a lot more sense. A fumbling and protracted sex scene between Michael and Lisa may perversely be the most realistic coupling ever committed to the big screen, and the bleak tragedy of the film’s conclusion is particularly resonant. I sat there mesmerised throughout.

Mind you, it’s not to everyone’s taste. A woman in the row behind us loudly proclaimed that it was ‘the worst movie she’d ever seen.’ Well, she’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but I have to disagree most vehemently. Anomalisa (co-directed with Duke Johnson) may just be Kaufman’s masterpiece and much as I liked Inside Out, I can’t help feeling that this was a more worthy contender for that animation Oscar. Go see what you think, but whatever you feel about the merits of Kaufman’s work, I think you’ll have to agree that this is a film like no other.

5 stars

Philip Caveney