Commercial submariner Robinson (Law) has dedicated his life to the sea, at the expense of his marriage. Abruptly laid-off by his callous company, he hears of a sunken submarine full of Nazi gold and assembles a diverse group of sailors to search for it in the Black Sea.
“Gold conjures up a mist about a man,” says Charles Dickens, “more destructive of all his old senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal.” At least, that’s what the internet tells us (it’s in Nicholas Nickleby, apparently). Certainly, there’s no disguising the lust that clouds the eyes of Jude Law’s struggling submariner when he hears of the potential $40 million bounty lying at the bottom of the Black Sea. In it he sees freedom: the chance to support — and perhaps win back — his estranged wife and child, the chance to escape his tough professional life, the chance to strike a blow against The Man. And, well, who wouldn’t want that?
It’s a theme that has been explored often, with the golden connection specifically bringing to mind The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King. There’s perhaps no greater compliment to pay Black Sea than that it can stand proudly alongside those John Huston pictures. If not their equal, then it’s certainly not embarrassed by the comparison. And it’s better-looking. For while there’s much to praise in Black Sea (and we will), nothing is more impressive than how it looks.
While the film versus digital debate rumbles somewhat tediously on, cinematographer Christopher Ross shows just how effective and exciting the ‘new’ format can be, allowing for access to and an intimacy with the inevitably cramped submarine interiors, but also capturing the great, terrible beauty of the unknowable depths. The exterior shots of the submarine — in particular one startling wide shot as it glides through the gloom — provide Black Sea with a scale in the same way Jordan Cronenweth’s work on Blade Runner gave that movie an epic sense (despite it taking place largely in dark rooms and on a one-street set). That is not the only science-fiction echo here. For although yes, Black Sea recalls such classic mission movies as The Wages Of Fear or the desperate heists of Rififi and Heat, it also has the sense of dread, danger and being stranded as Alien. We’ve seen Tony Scott’s submarine movie, Crimson Tide. This might be the closest we come to Ridley’s.
This crew have given their marriages or health or happiness to their work, grinding hard to make ends meet and then being glibly discarded by people who could never themselves do the work that these men have mastered. This is what gives Black Sea a real power, in our long, drawn-out age of austerity. Because their fate awaits many in any profession. When you dedicate yourself to a cause only to realise the people in charge don’t understand your skills or ‘their’ product, and don’t actually, even at a superficial level, give a shit about you. If you want loyalty, buy a dog.
Screenwriter Dennis Kelly’s heroes are all flawed, relatable beings — not simple noble working men or suit-wearing stiffs. Some elements skirt with cliché: the family in the wallet, the character who is claustrophobic, the pregnant girl at home. And Law’s flashbacks to life with his wife take on a white-bathed beauty that feels too self-consciously idealised, especially against the grim reality of the ship (though casting Jodie Whittaker is perfect, as she gives much heart with so little part). The trajectory of the disaster that awaits them is pretty signposted by introducing one character, literally, as a “psychopath”, having him play with a knife and then — to really underline the point — casting Ben Mendelsohn. But the inevitability doesn’t undermine the tension, fear or emotion when Law’s well-meaning promise — that everyone gets an equal share of the bounty — leads to brutal conflict.
Scoot McNairy — effectively playing the Paul Reiser part in Aliens — is becoming one of modern cinema’s most reliable pleasures (he somehow makes you care about a man who brings the Financial Times onto a submarine), along with Michael Smiley, while of the excellent Russian cast Grigoriy Dobrygin stands out as the glue trying to keep everyone together. And then there’s Law, who delivers just the right blend of decency and desperation, an ordinary man driven to extreme depths. From Touching The Void to this, Kevin Macdonald is a director at his best in desperate tales of survival. Here he puts us right alongside everyday heroes, struggling to make their way, trying to — literally — keep their heads above water. We’re all in it together.
Though it perhaps inevitably lives in the shadow of some subgenre masterpieces, Black Sea is a superbly shot men-on-a-mission thriller with chest-tightening tension and a striking contemporary resonance.