By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
What do you do when your highly complex, specific skillset is no longer needed? As the heyday of British manufacturing disappears far into the distance, it’s a question many are left facing. The answer in Kevin Macdonald’s claustrophobic submarine thriller is not likely to bring much comfort either.
Black Sea opens with Jude Law’s Robinson receiving his marching orders from Agora, the heartless employer that offers a derisory parting package before telling him to clear his desk. A salvage expert, it’s not that he’s bad at his job; he’s just no longer needed. Contemplating a grim future from the confines of his brown flat and dingy pub, an old friend puts him onto a plan to salvage a recently discovered U-Boat laden with that favourite movie trope, Nazi gold.
With a shady investor bankrolling the illegal mission in the Black Sea, and Russian contacts on hand to buy a decrepit Soviet sub, the only possible crew members are fellow Robinsons; once useful men cast onto the scrap heap. As they set about making the rusting wreck into a vessel that can come back up again after diving, there’s plenty of opportunity to discuss the hand they’ve been dealt. Robinson rails repeatedly at Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a corporate landlubber sent along to keep watch, while bemoaning the burger flipping advice handed out by the job centre. Other crew members are unemployed or scraping by. Reynolds (Michael Smiley) now has a paper round, Peters (David Threlfall) emphysema.
The point is clear; these still useful men have been tossed aside. They look past it but can do the job, just like the submarine they now pilot. Except they really can’t. The crew is split between Robinson’s English speaking former colleagues, a selection of Russians and a homeless teenager the good captain inexplicably invites along. Sparked by Fraser, Ben Mendelsohn’s trademarked psychopath, the two camps are soon at each other’s throats leading to severe damage to the sub and a plunge to the ocean floor that shifts the action from heist to survival thriller.
It’s here Macdonald’s ability to wring every last drop of tension comes to the fore. In the grim metallic confines of an ageing submarine, he thrusts his crew into intense psychological conflict. Bathed in the eerie red lighting that comes on in emergencies, Robinson’s crew alternates between brutal confrontation and bursts of ingenuity as they figure out how to salvage the parts needed to survive from the stricken U-boat.
There’s an organic feel to many of the twists but acclaimed writer Dennis Kelly’s (Utopia) screenplay eventually overplays its hand, introducing turns that feel forced. The fate of several characters become clear ahead of time while the repeated collapse of discipline suggests a valid reason for ushering this motley crew out the door of their former jobs.
It’s here Law’s Robinson rises above the tamer twists to hold attention in the final act. At the start, he’s the purposeful hero with a heart. This gruff mariner will sit watching his now distant son leaving school before making the inexplicable decision to take a homeless teenager who’s never been to sea with him on the submarine. It’s as stupid as it sounds and serves no purpose other than to provide Robinson a surrogate son to worry about. And then he turns, no longer the gruff hero. Greed clouds his eyes, golden obsession overtaking safety concerns. It’s a role Law couldn’t have played ten years ago, yet now he seems made for tough, embittered working men. Chewing through an earthy Scottish accent, he glows with grim charisma.
Black Sea is more interested in shaking nerves and pulling the floor out from under the audience than fully engaging with the social and psychological themes Kelly’s screenplay dabbles in, but with Law shining, Macdonald maintains a level of tension that becomes almost insufferable. A highly proficient thriller, it barely lets up until the credits roll. Just be careful not to watch if in need of relaxation. There’s none to be found here.
Black Sea is in cinemas from December 5th.