The message at the heart of Kevin Macdonald’s new submarine action-thriller Black Sea is that we have become active participants in our own oppression. Powerful social elites and corporations set the board and we move around like chess pieces, desperately taking out our competition as if it’s their fault we’re stuck on the grid. Occasionally we look up and see the hands of those manipulating our behaviour, but we’re so tired and we’ve been playing the game for so long that we feel our only choice is to continue. It’s all we know.
The plot of Black Sea is standard men-on-a-mission fare. When maverick submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law) is fired from his job at a salvage company, he decides to lead a ragtag crew of ex-sailors on an expedition to recover lost Nazi gold from a shipwrecked U-boat. As they close in on the treasure, tensions among the crew begin to arise and an act of violence threatens to jeopardise the mission and the safety of everyone on board.
Kevin Macdonald’s fifth feature film is a strange hybrid. On one level, it’s a modern parable about how desperate people devour each other when times are hard. The allusions to bankers (personified by Scoot McNairy’s snivelling corporate shill) and the way in which working class Europeans were negatively impacted by the global financial crisis are well done, and the survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog antagonism between Russian and British characters nicely mirrors the issues around immigration and competition for jobs in contemporary Britain. However, the film’s larger themes are consistently undermined by its pulpier elements, particularly the overblown Moby Dick-on-a-submarine plot that borders on the ridiculous at times.
Despite the hokiness of some of the narrative twists and turns, Black Sea is a lot of fun. Kevin Macdonald manages to squeeze paranoia and suspense out of the confined, claustrophobic environment of the submarine, and the atmospheric lighting of narrow corridors and steam-filled engine rooms evokes Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon as much as The Hunt for Red October. His staging of the underwater exploration scenes is particularly reminiscent of Science Fiction, as suited divers use flashlights to cut through pitch-darkness and trudge across the seabed like astronauts exploring an alien world.
The excellent supporting cast gives real weight and personality to the smaller parts, with Michael Smiley and David Threfall’s seasoned professionals embodying the expression “salty seadogs”. Ben Mendelsohn is the standout, delivering the charismatic psycho performance that has become his stock-in-trade since 2010’s Animal Kingdom. That said, one has to wonder whether a group of experienced sailors would really treat his character, who is so obviously a threat to their personal safety, this casually. They may be used to life on a submarine, but knife-wielding maniacs with paranoid delusions are probably few and far between.
Jude Law is a talented actor and he does his best with a role that feels like it was written for an older, more imposing figure. He lacks the gravitas of other cinematic submarine captains like Sean Connery and Gene Hackman, and it’s hard to take him seriously as a hardened leader-of-men who inspires fear, loyalty and devotion in his crew. His wobbly Scottish accent adds to the sense that he is miscast in the part and this has a detrimental effect on a vital father-and-son subplot with Bobby Schofield’s character Tobin that is supposed to form the film’s emotional centre.
In the end, Black Sea is less than the sum of its parts. A well-acted and competently-directed genre piece with aspirations of social commentary that is hampered by an inconsistency of tone and slightly derivative plot elements.
Black Sea is released nationwide on 5th December 2014