Wednesday 10 December 2014


(Kevin MacDonald, 2014)

MacDonald is now that rare thing; an excellent genre craftsman who never makes a bad film. His work in fiction - setting aside his excellent documentaries -  goes from pretty good (State of Play, How I Live Now) to excellent (The Eagle). He has a skilful way with actors and a feel for textures which makes each of his films smell and play very differently.
Black Sea is an old-fashioned men-on-a-mission movie transplanted into the submarine genre. As such, it features a great cast of grizzled character actors playing strong, instantly recognisable types. Jude Law (attempting a passable Scottish accent) is Robinson, fired by his long-term employers at the start of the film, sulking in his dingy Aberdeen flat (MacDonald finds the poetry in the net curtains dancing the breeze) and missing his ex-wife and son, who left him because he was at sea too much. An old colleague suggests he take on a dangerous job - leading a team into the black sea in search of a Nazi U-boat that sank during the Second World War, stuffed with tons of gold.
They have to get the backing of a wealthy patron, recruit a team of Brits and Russians, buy a second-hand submarine, and evade the Russian fleet en route to the gold. Only their team contains one shifty psychopath (Ben Mendelsohn, good as ever), a weaselly Corporate American (Scoot McNairy, doing Paul Reiser in Aliens, and doing him pretty well) and a bunch of Russians and Brits who do not trust one another and cannot communicate. Tensions rise as their journey begins, and inevitably lead to death and disaster.
The cast, MacDonald's intense direction and a taut script by Dennis Kelly mean that early on the tension settles in like an extra actor and it is never off screen. This is one of those submarine films that is excellent on the sheer terror of the alien world beyond the sub's hull ("Just cold, black death", as Michael Smiley's character puts it, sharing all of the film's best lines with David Threlfall) and features a terrifying diving sequence alongside some equally eerie shots of the sub cutting through the murk. Those scenes only increase the claustrophobic feverishness of the paranoia crackling between the men onboard, all of them familiar from the sort of mission movies that were popular four or five decades ago. I mean that as a compliment; Black Sea is a great little yarn, suspenseful, gripping and unexpectedly funny in places.
It is also a study in working class rage - Robinson is motivated by fury at "them", the men who have ruined his industry and taken his career, and he inspires his men with promises of wealth, only to find himself turned and somewhat corrupted by so much beautiful gold, captured by MacDonald glimmering and reflecting across his wide-eyed face. A mission movie for our times, then, and a thoroughly satisfying one, the odd lapse in plot logic aside.

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