Kevin MacDonald is no stranger to high stakes. His documentaries Touching the Void and One Day in September both stared unblinkingly at the extremes of the human experience, the former a study of man against nature in the Peruvian Andes, the latter an Oscar-winning study of chaos at Munich’s Olympics. MacDonald's features, meanwhile, have been equally tense. State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, in particular, explored the fates of isolated and flawed crusaders battling for survival.
With his latest project, Black Sea, the filmmaker returns to that familiar well once more, installing his motley band of mercenary submariners in a clanking old boat and plunging them headlong into the abyss — a milieu described by morose helmsman Reynolds (Holywood actor and comic Michael Smiley) as analogous to ‘dark, cold death’.
From the beginning of this excellent maritime thriller, there exists a populist air to the simple premise, one raging against degradation and indignity driven by the cruelties of our recessionary age. Jude Law plays Robinson, an inexplicably Scottish sub captain made redundant early on by the faceless suits at his marine salvage company. Dispatched, with a meagre handshake, to sign on and watch as his son is raised in the affluent surroundings provided by his ex-wife’s new husband, Robinson is filled with a bubbling bitterness towards wanton corporate greed. In the confines of his pokey, spartan flat Law’s glowering seaman appears close to despair.
Redemption comes then in the form of an operation requiring his particular expertise. Given that Black Sea sits easily in a genre almost wholly defined by Wolfgang Petersen’s masterful Das Boot, the presence of a sunken U-boat at the bottom of the eponymous waterway holds obvious significance. For Robinson, the millions in otherwise forgotten Nazi bullion resting deep inside its belly are too much to resist. With a half-British, half-Russian crew in tow, and working on behalf of a shadowy financier, he hires a soiled, failing submarine before setting off to liberate the loot.
The result is a tense, superbly volatile adventure story, laced with a grimy claustrophobia — the leased vessel is an appalling totem of Soviet functionality — that morphs, steadily, from by-product of hard-edged expediency into something visceral and infinitely more frightening.
Piloting a rusted submersible to the depths of the Black Sea takes a certain degree of steely determination, of course. These men are not amateurs but this mission has not been undertaken for the sake of their own egos. Money, prospects, a decent life; such things are entirely absent, and so they dive onwards, trusting that bravery will reward them.
Desperate men are prone to act desperately, however, and when Robinson makes the fatal mistake of informing this collection of bleak souls that they are to receive an equal share of a gilded stash, the twin spectres of avarice and mutiny quickly take hold.
In the lead role, strange accent notwithstanding, Law is superb, registering a forceful reminder of how magnetic a personality he can be away from the tittle and tattle of the tabloid swamp. The notional hero, Robinson is merely an ordinary man with everyday concerns. Plainly motivated by financial gain, he places this interest above most other considerations, and is complicated enough to unnerve the reprobates under his command.
Of these, none is more threatening than Ben Mendelsohn’s unhinged master diver, Fraser. The Australian again proves himself a rising talent and his is an instantly corrosive personality, a fascinating creation. On deck he seems little more than a petulant psychopath; in the treacherous sands of the sea bed he serves ably as a calm leader, responsible for the safety of his comrades. Ultimately, his destructive choices prove fatal, manipulated into place by the voyage’s snivelling white collar, Daniels (played with typical ease by Mendelsohn’s Killing Them Softly co-star Scoot McNairy).
When disaster descends — and descend it does — the mettle of these disparate characters is severely tested. Few reach the standard, though quiet hope forms in callow Tobin (Bobby Schofield) and gentle navigator Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, seen most recently in Anton Corbijn’s terrific A Most Wanted Man). As the scheme comes close to crumbling, life is weighed against the promise of fortune; McDonald, ramping up the stress, pushes even his dependable men to the point of breaking.
As focused as the film is on those human dynamics, it does not scrimp on spectacle and the director introduces occasionally startling imagery to offset the drama. In one scene his camera pulls out to reveal a stricken U-boat, swastika on show, marooned on an underwater precipice. Later, as the expedition negotiates a narrow gorge, the murky green vastness of the sea almost consumes their tiny presence.
By contrast, there is a soiled intimacy to the interior of Robinson’s submarine that promises only doom. The dank walls are, as the dependable Smiley perceptively suggests, the sole surroundings in which these hopeless individuals might properly function.
An unamended version of this article was first published here.