Black Sea, 2014.
Directed by Kevin Mcdonald.
Starring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Jodie Whittaker, Karl Davies and Michael Smiley.
In order to make good with his former employers, a submarine captain takes a job with a shadowy backer to search the depths of the Black Sea for a submarine rumored to be loaded with gold.
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose” wrote American author James A. Baldwin and in Black Sea director Kevin Macdonald puts us in a Russian submarine 100 metres below the surface with a handful of men who have exactly that. Aside from one young man who should never have been there, I didn’t trust single one of them and therein lies the secret to this thrilling, claustrophobic, and dangerous underwater adventure.
Four tonnes of Nazi gold lies at the bottom of the Black Sea and a crew of ten men led by the rugged Robinson (Jude Law) are recruited to retrieve it in return for a cut of what they bring back. What follows is a straight forward piece of adventure storytelling the likes of which we rarely see anymore; go down, get the gold, get back up again. Macdonald’s movie is a boy’s own tale of machismo, greed, honour and betrayal, but underpinning the film, I felt, is the theme of male identity with the backdrop of a treasure hunt.
It’s a David Mamet-esque world of men in the submarine. Robinson, a man who once commanded crews at sea and had a wife and son to come home to now finds himself unemployed and alone as the film begins. His wife has moved in with a rich man with ‘a fancy car’ whilst Robinson gets eight grand compensation for a lifetime’s work. His life’s work and the work of the crew have only helped make other men, company men, richer whilst they are the ‘shit which gets flushed away’. Perhaps too conveniently the film places one such business man is one the boat with them, and the film isn’t particularly subtle with its themes but I’d rather they were there than not; it adds gravitas to what could have been an action-only story.
In the boat is a young lad from Liverpool who, if this were a nineteenth century novel, would have been the narrator and a film aiming for more of a prestigious feel might have turned him into that role, but Macdonald’s film is a low-key story where nothing is made to feel grand or epic. Unlike the other men this kid has never set foot on a submarine before and is seen as barely a man, but he will earn his share or go down with all the rest. Over the course of the film he will find out what kind of a man he is, and what kind of a man he does not want to become. One such man is Fraser (played by the always scary Ben Mendelsohn) who is written overly psychotic to ignite tensions amongst the team but the actor is able to portray a man full of misplaced rage whilst being the least ‘realistic’ man on the ship.
It’d be an easy yet lazy comparison to make between this film and modern submarine movies such as Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October simply because they’re set in a submarine. In those films the world is at stake yet no one knows (and both films are superb, no question) but Macdonald’s film is self contained and if these men fail then perhaps no one will ever know; they’ll be forgotten like the gold they are willing to risk everything for. The film is quick to get going, perhaps too quick as I’d like to have seen a little more of Robinson’s life before he decides to get involved with the plan, and also the script packs in plenty of tell rather than show in its character building before the set pieces begin, but it’d be negativity for the sake of it to criticise the film too much because ultimately it delivers in a big way when the action gets going.
It’s one disaster and challenge after another for the large majority of the film and Macdonald ramps up the tension and excitement with the craftsmanship of a director who knows how to squeeze each drop of both from such a tight and inescapable environment; but Macdonald also keeps things entirely believable and the characters really look like they’re suffering, panicking and hurting by the tragic end when gold is no longer the prize. If I can say one thing for Black Sea, it’s that it’s far from predictable.
Aside from some misjudged flashbacks to Robinson’s wife and son in happier days (something seemingly inspired by Christopher Nolan and was a technique equally mishandled by Bryan Singer in Valkyrie) Macdonald hardly puts a foot wrong in this highly recommended thriller, and it is certainly one to catch in cinemas to appreciate the size of the submarines and take in those tight frames which all submarine films use so well.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.