Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy, Michael Smiley
When we meet salvage expert and submarine skipper Robinson (Jude Law), remote piloted vehicle technology has made him redundant, like many men in his line of work, and the company he served for decades has shown him the door with little in the way of compensation. From an old mate in similar dire financial straits, Robinson hears of a salvage job that’s almost too good to be true: a Nazi U-boat sunk in the Black Sea off the coast of Georgia, loaded with millions in gold bullion. The boat’s grave is in waters contested by Russia, so the operation needs to secret: a mixed crew of British and Russian men, sailing a military surplus sub from Sebastopol, will retrieve the treasure from right under the noses of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. And with that classical, Boy’s Own Adventure set up, we’re off to the races.
Black Sea is a tight, tense, economical joy of a thriller that lays out its scenario quickly and cleanly and never misses an opportunity to up the stakes as the wheels come off Robinson’s treasure hunt. The shape of the narrative is familiar – a bunch of disparate characters with nothing to lose embark on a mission and proceed to screw it up royally thanks to their own greed, fear and other assorted shortcomings – but the joy comes in anticipation: how will it all go wrong, and whose fault will it be? And, most importantly, who’s going to survive?
It almost goes without saying that its claustrophobic – it’s a submarine flick, after all – but the combination of the excellent production design and Macdonald’s tight, considered camera work really drives it home. The boat our boys put to sea in is a rusted old Russian hulk, an ancient, groaning behemoth, a murky dripping, floating coffin that requires 24 hour attention to keep running. Outside, it’s just a lifeless void – certain death if the sub founders – and the audience absolutely feels it.
And then there’s Jude Law’s Robinson, a have not who is mad as hell at the haves, who’ve taken everything from him – his job, his dignity, his future. For Robinson, the gold they’re trying to salvage isn’t just enough money to keep him in clover for the rest of his days – it’s steeped in symbolism, not the least of which as a huge raised middle finger to the people and power structures that have slowly but surely crippled the working class.
It’s this class awareness that makes the film stand out. It’s an angry story about honest men pushed to desperate lengths by uncaring capitalism, and the stark realities of their economic and social situation underpins every turn of the plot. It’s a bit glib, sure, but there’s a lot of overlap between Black Sea and The Boys From The Black Stuff, another British cultural artifact from an earlier period of austerity and greed. That Macdonald and his screenwriter, Dennis Kelly, manage to deal with these themes without letting them overwhelm the central propulsive narrative is impressive: whatever level you choose to engage with it on, Black Sea is never less than gripping.