Forgive the pun, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface in Black Sea, the latest submarine thriller from The Last King Of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald. Jude Law plays Captain Robinson, a skipper who we are introduced to just as he is being made redundant by the company he has worked for for eleven years. Having sacrificed his family for his job, with nothing to show for it other than a measly eight thousand pound redundancy package; the embittered Robinson hears of a possible job that would not only make him rich but also get back at his former company too. The mission: to lead a ragtag team made up of half Russian, half British, into the Black Sea with the intention of finding a Russian u-boat sunk during WWII and salvaging the vast amount of gold said to be within it. But with a team that includes a person referred to as a ‘psychopath’, it isn’t long before paranoia and greed leads to disaster and the group of submariners must soon decide what is more important; their lives or the money.
Like submarine thrillers before it, Black Sea is steeped in the Cold War fears of the ‘reds’ as the initial rift between the group emerges from a jealousy that the Russian’s share equates to more in their currency than it does ours. A sense of paranoia, enhanced by a language barrier, leads to alliances being formed and ultimately murder, which sets the team’s course toward self-destruction. As much as the film is about the fear of foreigners though, it’s also a lesson in economics and turns into a story about communism vs capitalism as well as us vs them. Disheartened by the greed and corruption of a capitalist government, Robinson takes the stance that his team will get an equal share of the profit despite being asked by slimy banker Daniels “what happens when they realise that their share gets bigger if some of the crew are lost”. Commitment to the ideals of equal wealth soon turn into a blind obsession of Robinson and screenwriter Dennis Kelly (Utopia) cleverly picks apart the idea of communism, revealing the concepts main flaw in that somebody always ends up being corrupt and getting more of the pot than everybody else.
Robinson’s decent into possible madness makes for interesting viewing in itself and Jude Law plays the role well with a convincing Scottish accent. His motivations are at times ambiguous but are revealed through the introduction of Liam, a surrogate son who Robinson takes under his wing after the death of a mutual friend. It’s clear to see then that there are a lot of themes being juggled through the course of Black Sea and while that makes for an interesting watch, it does leave the film slightly off balance. Macdonald has said that by shooting the film digitally, it allowed the camera to get into every nook and cranny of the submarine that other films haven’t been able to previously, yet it never fully captures the claustrophobia and tension of films like The Hunt For Red October, Das Boot and even Crimson Tide.
The script seems at odds with itself in balancing out the thrills with the subtext and often loses out in the former, meaning Black Sea isn’t as completely satisfying as I would have liked. There are times where it falls into predictability and moments of baffling dialogue that include my personal favourite line of the film “They think they can treat us like shit, well now the shit is fighting back!”. All in all though, Black Sea is far from a sinking ship and what it lacks in suspense, it makes up for in its debate about social and economic politics.
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