BLACK SEA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Kevin MacDonald

Stars: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley, Tobias Menzies, Bobby Schofield, Jodie Whittaker, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Konstantin Khabensky, Daniel Ryan, David Threlfall, Sergey Puskepolis, Sergey Kolesnikov.

Oscar winning director Kevin MacDonald (One Day In September, The Last King Of Scotland, etc) takes us on a voyage to the bottom of the sea in this tense and claustrophobic thriller set aboard a submarine. There have been a few movies set aboard submarines, such as Das Boot, The Hunt For Red October, Crimson Tide, U-571, and of course the classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, etc, and Black Sea does admittedly have quite a few familiar elements.

Robinson (played by Jude Law) has worked in the marine salvage industry for much of his life since leaving the Royal Navy. His work though has cost him plenty personally as he is estranged from his wife and young son. But he has just been dismissed from a company after eleven years, and given a paltry $8000 payout as compensation. The bitter Robinson meets with some other former marine workers at a pub for drinks, which is where he first hears the rumours about a Nazi submarine supposedly carrying a fortune in gold bullion that sank in the Black Sea at the height of WWII.

Robinson mounts a salvage mission with the help of a mysterious benefactor who agrees to bankroll the operation for 40% cut of the proceeds. With the help of Daniels (played by Scoot McNairy), a shady executive for the salvage company, Robinson assembles a disparate ragtag group comprising of down on their luck British and Russian sailors, and they set sail in a rustbucket submarine.

There are already early problems aboard the submarine as the Russians and the British crew are suspicious of each other, and there are language difficulties that make working together hard. Tensions escalate. But then add to the mix the lure of a fortune in gold, and greed and paranoia quickly take hold.

Robinson has informed the crew that everyone will share equally in the profits, but some amongst the crew start to think that if there were less crew then their share would increase. Robinson himself becomes obsessed with the gold and he is pushed to the edge of madness and soon loses control of his crew. And soon enough, psychotic diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to plot a little murder. But his actions not only put the mission at risk but endangers everyone else in the motley crew.

Black Sea is the first feature film script written by television writer Dennis Kelly, and comes across as a study of greed and human weakness, in other words a sort of watery variation on John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Unfortunately though many of the characters here are a little cliched and one-dimensional stereotypes. Better known as a director of tense and provocative documentaries, MacDonald nonetheless does a good job of ramping up the tension, and he creates a couple of well-staged action sequences. MacDonald has always been drawn towards stories of masculinity and survival and character driven dramas. He captures the stress of life on a cramped submarine and uses the claustrophobic confines of the submarine well to create a genuine sense of white knuckled tension and suspense.

Christopher Ross’ cinematography also makes the most of the cramped and dimly lit location, and he has shot the interiors in red, which adds to the eerie mood. There is also some superb underwater cinematography as three of the crew venture out onto the ocean floor to locate the sunken submarine and retrieve the gold.

Much of the authenticity of the material lies in some astute casting choices. Law has beefed up a little to play the disgruntled Robinson, and his performance is tinged with a touch of anger, desperation and uneasiness as he captures the character’s slowly deteriorating mental state. A nicely deranged Mendelsohn brings a nicely manic edge and sense of desperation to his portrayal of the wild card Fraser. Mendelsohn’s Hollywood career has seen him often typecast as sleazy lowlifes and simple minded villains, and he is perfectly suited to his role here. Of the Russian crew members, only Sergey Veksler and Grigoriy Dobrygin (How I Ended This Summer, etc) leave any sort of lasting impression. And relative newcomer Bobby Schofield brings a hint of vulnerability and naivety to his role as Tobin, the inexperienced teenager of the crew.

Black Sea is a tense and well staged if familiar sounding claustrophobic thriller, but MacDonald’s visceral and muscular direction gives it a distinctive look and feel, and there are a few well placed shocks.

★★★

 

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