I approached Kevin Macdonald’s ‘Black Sea’ with an air of optimism. I am an admirer of his work, considering ‘Touching The Void’ to be a great documentary, and films such as ‘State Of Play’ and ‘The Last King Of Scotland’ showing his ability to build atmosphere and tell intriguing stories. ‘Black Sea’ though, is a much smaller venture than his previous work.
The film centres on Jude Law’s character Robinson, as he organises a team of submarine experts in order to take a wealth of Nazi gold from another shipwrecked sub. The performances are terrific, even if Law’s accent is occasionally a bit wobbly. Law’s Robinson is a grouchy and bad tempered soul, and the actor does great work in producing a layered character, that otherwise could have been one dimensional. We root for this character, despite his obviously bullish edge, and it is clear that he is the alpha of the pack, regardless of the many pretenders trying to rule the seas.
Scoot McNairy does another dependable job as the wormy and conniving American, working for the financier of the whole project. It is a shame that McNairy is never given more to do in the films he has appeared in. In ‘Argo’, he was a negative influence, constantly bemoaning their chances of escape and in the underrated ‘Killing Them Softly’, he made a blink and you’ll miss it appearance. But he does good work in a role that is, for all intents and purposes, unlikeable.
For me though, the real star is Ben Mendelsohn, who delivers another pitch perfect performance as the psychopathic diver, Fraser. I have seen Mendelsohn in a number of roles in recent years, from ‘Animal Kingdom’, to his smaller role in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and he consistently delivers; especially when playing off-kilter characters. Despite his character’s marbles being so incredibly lost in the underwater wilderness, his character, by the end, seems like the most sane of them all. Thanks to writing that is whip-smart, and a terrific performance, it becomes baffling to see how each of the characters’ morals deteriorate in such a manner where the psycho becomes the reasonable one.
The film itself is well shot by cinematographer Christopher Ross, who makes the submarine feel uncomfortably claustrophobic. But this could also be down to the building tensions between the crew, which has been brilliantly handled by director Kevin Macdonald and writer Dennis Kelly. In fact, the oppressive atmosphere of the submarine stands as a representation of each characters’ personal problems; a metaphor which conveys each character desperately trying to escape their own personal demons.
The sequence where the characters are trying to transport the gold between submarines is both torrid and tense, further emphasising the work of the cinematographer; I actually felt the chill of the sea whilst they struggled with their hefty load. The film is entertaining and a good watch, but any thoughts that this could be up there with the greats are misplaced. The main poster for the film may try and emulate the one for Paul Greengrass’ ‘Captain Phillips’, but ‘Black Sea’ has neither the thematic exploration nor the depth of the aforementioned film, despite its familiar setting.
In the end, this is another good, solid addition into Macdonald’s filmography, but it is not the kind of film that deserves to win many awards (except for cinematography, perhaps). It’s a shame that there was such limited thematic exploration in the film, but it was nonetheless entertaining and gripping stuff.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn