Black Sea is a claustrophobic heist thriller directed by Kevin McDonald (director of Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland and How I Live Now) from an original screenplay by Dennis Kelly, and featuring an all-star British and Russian cast. Set almost predominantly on board a submarine this is a film about bitter and desperate men placed in physically and mentally stressful situations. The submarine film is a genre all of its own, and this will absolutely satisfy fans. It is very intense, and the wringing of suspense is outstanding. There are several sequences, and I won’t discuss them here, with the capacity to give heart palpitations.
The always-excellent Jude Law stars as Robinson, a divorced veteran captain of under-sea salvage vessels who learns that he has just been unfairly made redundant after many years of service. He learns from an ex-colleague about a Nazi U-boat from World War II that sank off the coast of Georgia with millions of dollars worth of gold. Their former employer knew of the location, but had been unable to put a team together to salvage it.
Robinson is convinced that the heist could be pulled off, and after receiving funding from a mysterious backer, whose associate Daniels (Scoot McNairy) is instructed to join the mission, he recruits a rag-tag group of veteran British and Russian crew members, including Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), Reynolds (Michael Smiley) and Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), to get their ancient Russian submarine sea-ready. Tensions soon mount and a series of catastrophes result in the vessel damaged and stranded on the bottom of the Black Sea, but potentially within the vicinity of the sunken U-Boat. Robinson, who believes so much in his ideal, becomes willing to go to any lengths to secure the gold.
Black Sea is a very efficient thriller, wasting no time in getting straight into the mission and letting us gradually learn about the characters throughout the film rather than introducing them all individually in the first act. There are some implausible developments, and it is disappointing when the story does get a bit silly and predictable. But, on the other hand there are some excellent twists and the characters evolve in surprising ways. Due to the necessity of having both a British and Russian crew there are tensions about the dispersal of share immediately, which feels like an easy way to cull some characters and set up their predicament. However, I was in awe of some of these set pieces, and how they were achieved. Filming the dive to retrieve the gold was so convincing you would have thought these guys were actually walking along the bottom of the ocean.
Law is great as a hardened, beefed-up career sub captain who is pushed to the edge after dealing with years of being exploited by corporations, but several more of the cast bring necessary complexity to their characters. Mendolsohn is a master of playing unhinged, antagonistic characters with a violent temperament, but he is most interesting here when his destructive greed evaporates when faced with his own mortality. Smiley, best known as a comic, has become such a trusted and versatile performer. It is now clear that there is nothing he can’t do. The charismatic Dobrygin, who got cred from his performance in How I Ended This Summer and then went on to star in A Most Wanted Man, is also very talented.
This is a film that examines the decisions that people make under extreme pressure, and this adds a psychological complexity to the story. After a serious knock on the head, Robinson struggles with his leadership. Until then he manages to keep a level head and ensure the conflict is kept under wraps. Once the gold comes on board he becomes reckless, willing to risk the lives of everyone on board to be a rich man. He doesn’t irrationally become a villain, as he genuinely believes that what he proposes is possible, despite his debilitating crew and the damaged vessel.
Black Sea has a superb ending, and despite some narrative issues is an engaging thriller throughout. Law carries this film in another admirable performance, dealing with mutiny, greed, personal limitations and impossible odds in an endearing attempt at a fresh start.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Kevin McDonald
Writer(s): Dennis Kelly
Starring: Jude Law, Michel Smily, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendolsohn
Runtime: 115 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: April 9, 2015