I was thinking…
…I would never, and I mean never want to serve on a submarine. The claustrophobic interior, the lack of fresh air, the darkness, the omnipresent danger, not to mention the sharing of bunks, the general lack of privacy and the simple fact that you’re stuck in a metal tube with a bunch of dudes. And Kevin Macdonald’s film Black Sea reminds us that those are the best parts of being on a sub. He delves into depths (if you’ll pardon the pun) that make the aforementioned issues sound like a weekend at Disney World.
Black Sea launches (yes, I’m going to keep using nautical puns) when salvage submariner Captain Robinson (Jude Law—Sherlock Holmes), is laid off from his job and is not qualified for redundancy (which is a type of severance payment given to workers who are essentially deemed unnecessary or obsolete).
But hope dawns on the horizon as he and his other laid-off buddies discuss the possibility of gaining access to a sunken Nazi submarine that had gone down carrying over $180 million in gold bars sent from Stalin to Hitler before the latter’s violation of their 1939 non-aggression pact. (See, you’re learning all sorts of stuff.)
Robinson enlists a crew of submariners and divers–half British, half Russian–and accepts the monetary aid of a wealthy investor in order to purchase a submarine for the quest. Political and military strife in the area (the Black Sea borders six countries, some of whom don’t like one another) means they must engage the mission in secret. Robinson, however, is more intent on beating his old employer to the treasure, and making enough money both to retire and support his young son.
The untimely and suspicious suicide of his best friend leaves a hole in the roster, which Robinson fills with young Tobin (film newcomer Bobby Schofield). The crew then leaves Sevastopol, Crimea in an “old whore” of a submarine, bound for the hidden U-boat.
As the journey continues, the British and the Russians begin to polarize. This schism is brought on, almost entirely, by the best diver Robinson could think of bringing: Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn—The Dark Knight Rises, Exodus: Gods and Kings). “He’s psychotic,” Robinson is warned. Don’t worry, he’s cool, Robinson claims.
But he’s not cool, is he.
Tempers flair, mistrust steeps, and all the while, the greed for gold threatens everyone.
Macdonald and his cinematographer, Christopher Ross, shoot this film from the very outset in cold tones and unsettling angles. The photographic Rule of Thirds is all but ignored, initially, to create an unsettled feeling for the viewer. On a subconscious level, the uninitiated feels something is wrong about the frame and how the characters are placed within it. That unnerving feeling is replaced with outright claustrophobia when we sink below the depths. Nearly the entire second half of the movie is filmed in tight shots–close-ups and medium shots–and in shallow focus, with the foreground objects in a blur. It is a constant reminder that there is no grand sound stage, there is no three-walled set with dressing rooms and a Craft Services table just off-camera. This a real Russian sub.
There are beautiful moments of reflection and introspection within this film beyond the sunny flashbacks in Robinson’s mind–moments that invite us to put ourselves in his place. Before the submarine dives below the calm waves of the sea and with the yellow-orange glow of the sun on the horizon, Robinson pauses and takes in the cloud-strewn sky above. When he finally shuts the hatch, we must say goodbye to all that beauty and immerse ourselves in the inky realm alongside him. There is no escape for any of us from that moment onward.
Black Sea envelopes us with more than just steel and water. The characters–each one portrayed by a wonderfully cast actor–embody the spectrum of blue collar men bent, scarred and cynical from long years of hard labor. And just when you think you have one of them figured out, they, like anyone in a submerged pressure cooker, will surprise you.
Tension builds throughout due to these myriad performances but also due to the circumstances through which they must survive. Other films are brought to mind as the narrative unfolds. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) surfaces as the lust for gold entices and twists the minds of even the most loyal and honorable men, men who sought for nothing more than to get a fair shake. A certain member of the team more than parallels a character from Aliens (I won’t tell you which, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise). And a blind course navigated through an underwater canyon pays homage to the Red Route 1 scene in The Hunt for Red October (1990).
Submarine films, by the very nature of their setting and subject, are suspenseful and this one deserves to be near the top of a long list of undersee films. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Das Boot (1981), Crimson Tide (1995), U-571 (2000) and even K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) all used the inherent tension borne of the hunt-and-hide world of the submarine. But Black Sea adds to it the search for that which corrupts the soul. And corrupt it does.
There are some absolutely wonderful moments strewn through the picture–emotional and often terrifying. Despite the fact that I, admittedly, figured out how the film was going to end with over an hour of it left to unfold, that did nothing to prevent the horrific thoughts, blood-chilling images and heart-rending moments from doling out their due impact. Dreams and nightmares were, more than once, dredged from beneath the Black Sea.
Ammo Dump rating: 8 out of 10 bars of gold
Run time: 115 minutes