Film reviews round-up: The Mercy, Loveless, Tad the Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas

Colin Firth transforms into a round-the-world yachtsman, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful new feature, and an underwhelming Spanish-made animated feature

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 07 February 2018 12:12
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Perhaps because the film itself is such a downer, Firth has been overlooked for major awards. His performance, though, ranks with his very finest work
Perhaps because the film itself is such a downer, Firth has been overlooked for major awards. His performance, though, ranks with his very finest work

The Mercy (12A)

★★★★☆

Dir James Marsh, 102 mins, starring: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Genevieve Gaunt

The Mercy stands as a darker, sadder version of those many stories about bumbling British underdogs trying to beat the odds through their sheer good nature and force of character. Here, round-the-world yachtsman Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), who had never previously sailed “much further than Falmouth”, ends up all alone on a wide, wide sea, despairing and suicidal.

Crowhurst was the middle-class family man who entered a Sunday Times-sponsored yacht race in 1968. He was singularly ill-prepared, an inventor and small businessman who took to sea partly to pay off his debts and partly to follow his dreams. Depending on which way you come at him, Crowhurst is either a hero in the Captain Scott mould or a self-deluded fool who abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of a pipe dream.

The Mercy has certain similarities with Brett Morgen’s recent documentary, Jane, about Jane Goodall, the young British woman from an equally stifling middle-class English background who set off to Tanzania to study and live with chimpanzees. Both films deal with their protagonists’ desire to escape. They’re quintessentially British figures whom we see a very long way from home.

Scott Z Burns’ screenplay suggests that, quite possibly, Crowhust didn’t want to enter the race at all. Once he had borrowed money to build his boat from local sponsor Stanley Best (Ken Stott) and had agreed to take part in the advertising campaigns dreamed up on his behalf by his relentless press agent, Rodney (David Thewlis), he felt too embarrassed to abandon his voyage.

There is a wonderful moment when he is shown on board his boat, just about to leave port. Director James Marsh throws in a close up of him looking utterly dejected and miserable. Marsh also shows us his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) chic and beautiful in a 1960s British housewife way in her scarf and coat, wearing an expression of sadness and extreme bemusement as her husband sails off into the great blue yonder.

The Mercy - Trailer

Early on, Firth plays Crowhurst much as he did King George VI in The King’s Speech, portraying him as a thoroughly decent and likeable type who is biting off more than he can chew. The scenes set in Teignmouth, where he built his boat, have a gentle comedy about them that belies what happens later.

Stott is in scene-stealing form as the bespectacled, pipe-smoking businessman who becomes the reluctant sailor’s patron. Thewlis has an engaging, spiv-like quality as the publicist, forever trying to dream up new angles with which to “sell” Crowhurst’s voyage to the public. Both men have a sinister aspect too. Whether wittingly or not, they put pressure on then reluctant sailor to continue on his ill-fated journey.

“I’ve never set out to sea in such a completely unprepared state in my life,” Crowhurst confides to his diary, an extraordinary confession given the potential danger he is putting himself in. Right from the outset, things start to break and leaks appear everywhere. He is in a state of continual, miserable dampness.

The film is as much about Britishness, class and codes of honour as it is about sailing. The greatest shame for Crowhurst isn’t that the voyage doesn’t go to plan but that he lies about his progress.

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Perhaps because the film itself is such a downer, Firth has been overlooked for major awards. His performance, though, ranks with his very finest work. He shows us a dependable English family man going slowly mad and coming closer and closer to despair. In his diary and messages home, he talks a “good show”, coming up with clichés about putting his best foot forward when we know that he is heading for the reefs.

Crowhurst’s story has already been told in a documentary (Deep Water) and in another feature film. It remains a puzzling and ambiguous tale. In Marsh’s hands, it is part comedy, part adventure, part love story and a large part horror movie. At times, the boat itself seems to turn against its hapless occupant.

The filmmakers take a sadistic pleasure in contrasting Crowhurst’s wretched existence at sea with flashbacks to the cosy domestic life he has left behind, He is in an invidious situation, aware that if he turns back, he faces financial ruin but pragmatic enough to realise that carrying on, at least without taking a shortcut or two, is likely to kill him.

His misery is matched by that of his wife Clare, trying to keep the family together, reduced to living on social security. Her love for him is self-evident, even if he has just sailed out of her life, potentially for good. In a understated and affecting performance, Weisz plays her with a mix of melancholy and bafflement.

Crowhurst doesn’t even really fit into the British tradition of noble failure. He cheats. That only adds to the pathos in this strange and unsettling film. We all know that Captain Scott didn’t get to the South Pole first and that he didn’t make it home. The facts can’t be changed here either, much as most audiences will surely wish that they could be.

Loveless (15)

★★★★☆

Dir Andrey Zvyagintsev, 124 mins, starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Varvara Shmykova, Matvey Novikov

One of the fascinations of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful new feature is its combination of the old and the new. Its characters – the Moscow couple separating in bitter circumstances, the sneering mother-in-law, the callous police officer – aren’t so different from those found in Chekhov short stories or 19th-century Dostoevsky novels.

In their suffering and their fatalism, they seem quintessentially old Russian and yet they are living in a very modern world. They all use smartphones and laptops. They are prey to the narcissism and insecurity of the social media age.

In its account of the breakup of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), the film is barbed, vicious and darkly humorous. The couple tear strips off one another with a malice that rekindles memories of both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (an influence the director has acknowledged).

Zhenya taunts her ex-husband, telling him she never loved him and only married him to escape her abusive mother. Boris is desperate to hold on to his well-paid white-collar job but knows his employers look askance at staff members who don’t have happy families. Both have new partners.

The discontent and bad faith of the bickering couple is reflected in society at large. The news carries stories of predictions of impending catastrophe. Low-level corruption appears to be everywhere. The real victim here is Alyosha, the son of Zhenya and Boris, a withdrawn 12-year-old boy who witnesses his parents’ rows.

Worse, he hears them as they argue who should have custody of him. Neither wants him. His mother resents the pain he caused her during his birth and seems to despise him. The father is too busy trying to begin a family with his new partner to deal with the distraction of a son from a previous marriage.

They speak of him with contempt. At one stage, Zhenya even complains that as the boy reaches puberty, he is beginning to smell like his father – and it’s an aroma she can’t stand.

In the early scenes, the approach is satirical. The director is exposing the shallowness and selfishness of his protagonists, who are so bent on their own pleasure and gratification that they don’t notice the pain of others. It isn’t just Zhenya and Boris who are unhappy. Their new lovers have their own insecurities and miseries too.

Zhenya’s boyfriend, who is older than she is, is pining for his grown-up daughter. She left Russia at the first opportunity and now the only communication between father and daughter appears to be through Skype. Boris’s new girlfriend is very insecure. She is terrified that he will leave her, just as he did Zhenya.

The tone of the storytelling changes completely when Alyosha goes missing. Zhenya and Boris may regard him as a burden and distraction when he is there – but they’re devastated when he vanishes. His disappearance makes them horribly aware of their own selfishness and irresponsibility.

Zvyagintsev shares the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ability to take everyday stories about unhappy families and to give them a tragic and universal dimension. The most banal scenes – lunches in the office cafeteria, Zhenya berating her child because he won’t drink his hot chocolate – take on a fraught quality.

Loveless isn’t cheerful viewing at all but it is virtuoso filmmaking from one of the few contemporary directors whose work bears comparison with that of the great auteurs from an older era in arthouse cinema.

Tad the Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas (U)

★★☆☆☆

Dirs Enrique Gato, David Alonso, 85 mins, voiced by: Óscar Barberán, Michelle Jenner, Adriana Ugarte

This underwhelming Spanish-made animated feature, released in time for the half-term, will at least teach the kids a little about ancient history, archaeology and the myth of King Midas. Whether it will entertain them much is another matter. Some of its humour is very forced – clunky jokes about Egyptian mummies impersonating Elvis or dogs chewing on skeletons’ bones.

The storyline follows the familiar Jewel of the Nile/Indiana Jones-style formula. Tadeo is a humble but rugged archaeology student working to pay his college fees on a Chicago building site. He is pining after the beautiful, flame-haired professor, Sara Lavrov, who has stumbled on the “Midas papyrus”.

She in on the verge of discovering the lost temple of Baal and of bringing together the sacred rings that will revive Midas’s power to turn everything into gold. Jack Rackham is the master-villain, determined to steal the rings for himself. In other words, it is the usual hokum.

Some of the plotting seems completely random. For no reason in particular, Sara announces her discovery in a swanky hotel in Las Vegas. There is then a lengthy interlude in Spain which plays like a commercial for the local tourist board, complete with flamenco and paella references.

Some of the visual gags are witty enough but for audiences spoilt in recent times by the gleaming brilliance of Pixar and Aardman animated features, this is very thin gruel.

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