A small crew, an old Russian sub, and the promise of treasure. This is the set up for Kevin Macdonald’s latest film “Black Sea,” starring Jude Law and Scoot McNairy. It might seem like it’s been done before, and it has. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and “Black Sea” definitely proves to be a promising film, even with its overused tropes.
Jude Law plays Captain Robinson, a once proud submarine operator in modern day England, who has recently been laid off. Out of work and abandoned by his estranged wife and child, he spends his days wallowing in sadness. That is until the promise of redemption is brought to his attention in the form of gold at the bottom of the sea. With the backing of a mysterious business man, and a rag tag crew of divers and seamen alike, Robinson embarks on a mission to the depths of the Black Sea to find millions of pounds worth of gold, and possibly redeem himself in the eyes of his peers and his family. Sounds simple enough, but not everything is as it seems, and soon Robinson and his crew discover the more primal nature of humanity.
Kevin Macdonald’s films have always been ones that dealt with our most primal instincts and how violence is and has always been wired into our DNA (see “The Last King Of Scotland” and “One Day In September”), and this is no exception. He slowly builds on the growth of these men’s madness, until it comes to a nearly uncomfortable edge between primal violence and calm sanity. The fact that almost the entire movie takes place in a submarine helps him establish a tone that is increasingly claustrophobic and dismal. When something goes wrong, there’s potential that these characters may very well die at the bottom of the sea; there are tons of risks. Luckily, Macdonald’s skills are deft enough that he makes every moment transpire with ease. Never is there dullness, as almost everything is entirely on edge, which benefits the film greatly.
His framing and lighting (thanks to cinematographer Christopher Ross) create the atmosphere needed in a submarine. It almost seems unreal, harsh and nightmarish, as if there’s no escape. In one particular scene, three characters explore the depths of the sea, with nothing but flimsy scuba suits and a guideline to keep them from getting lost and perhaps falling off into the abyss. This scene is the most terrifying; there are a number of close calls with their lives, and Macdonald knows exactly when to place them. The script (by playwright Dennis Kelly) itself is where the film somewhat suffers; the scenes between the crewmembers are fantastic, however the set up is very formulaic, and there are certain flashback scenes that take one completely out of the moment at hand. It is here that the film loses its great strength of tension.
The performances are fairly reasonable. Jude Law (sporting a Scottish accent) is very good as Robinson. He creates a character that slowly becomes insane, but remains completely married to the mission from film’s beginning to end. He wants his crew to succeed and remain alive, but he wants his own redemption even more, regardless of the cost. It’s great to see Law playing a character for once. He’s always been a fine actor, but here he becomes another person. He’s not a star in this movie, he’s part of the crew. The rest of the crew is fine as well, with Ben Mendelsohn’s psychotic diver as the standout. Scoot McNairy’s sniveling banker who is forced to accompany the seamen is the one weak link; his character is underused and completely unnecessary.
“Black Sea” has fine direction, and a nice return to form from Jude Law. By no means should you rush to see it, but if it interests you, you certainly won’t be disappointed.