Kevin MacDonald might well be the most unpredictable British film-maker working today. After making a name for himself with the Oscar winning documentary One Day in September, he eventually moved onto drama directing Forrest Whittaker in the Academy Award winning The Last King of Scotland. From there he adapted the British miniseries State of Play into the under recognised (if appropriately rated) American film of the same name and worked with Ridley Scott on Life in a Day, otherwise known as ‘that Youtube movie’. His last feature was 2013’s Young Adult adaptation How I Live Now which failed about as much as it succeeded but was a refreshingly dark take on what is usually a pretty safe genre. Now he returns to cinema screens with Black Sea, for all intents and purposes a fairly straightforward submarine thriller involving rough men, deep oceans and lost Nazi gold.
When Robinson (Jude Law) is made redundant from his non-contract salvage work of 11 years he finds himself left with nothing but skills unwarranted in a modern world that has little use of submarines or the junkers that raid them. Before long, an opportunity falls in his lap in the form of a submarine resting at the bottom of an ocean currently the subject of territorial bickering between Russia and Georgia. This bickering is preventing large salvage companies from pillaging the submarine but the promise of Nazi gold aboard the vessel is enough to convince him to pull together a band of similarly discarded Russian and British crewmen and claim it for themselves.
As with any submarine based thriller (try Das Boot), claustrophobia plays a big part of setting the tone for Black Sea but those scenes of foreboding are entirely eclipsed by the scenes set deep underwater on the outside of the submarine. The thick darkness of the ocean is as foreboding a terror as one can imagine and the vast emptiness of it is at least as unsettling as any similar such scenes from recent science fiction fare as Interstellar or Gravity. If anything, the gravity of the threat is imminently more present in Black Sea as the gang of misanthropes the film focuses on are all entirely believable as common people; men who have fallen on hard times and may not be the scientifically minded supermen that astronauts are by default but are, nonetheless, undoubtedly skilled hard workers. Such tension is ever present from the moment things start going wrong aboard the sub and well placed set pieces go a long way to permeate the dread and keep audiences amply along for the ride.
A film can have all of the tension in the world but means nothing without characters worth caring about and Black Sea errs on just the right side of, if not like-ability, at least empathy. Most of the cast are engaging and agreeable, especially before things go wrong, but MacDonald handles the build up with enough foresight to build believable conflict between the British and Russian crew and stoke the fires of discontent. When the likes of Ben Mendelsohn’s Fraser show their true colours as general scumbags, their intentions are at least clear and understandable.
The strong cast is held in place by Law’s Captain Robinson, a good man with clear motivation who is perhaps a little too desperate to make good on the situation. Law plays the role with a coarse Aberdeen accent and although it is initially jarring for anyone who knows what Law normally sounds like, it becomes a pretty engaging trait for the actor to accommodate and only aids in Law putting in his best performance since Gattaca.
If Black Sea has any particular problems, they come in the form of over expository dialogue, with characters occasionally explaining conflicts rather than just letting them play out, but honestly when the conflicts do occur they are rarely presented as simply as the exposition would suggest. It’s almost impossible not to at least consider recent events between Russia and Georgia in the real world but it certainly wouldn’t be fair to hold this knowledge against the movie. As it stands by itself, Black Sea stands among MacDonald’s best work as a flawed but invigorating and thrilling yarn.
Although somewhat ‘by the numbers’ compared to MacDonald’s previous fare, Black Sea is handled as well as such a story ever could be within the constraints of genre film-making.