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BLACK SEA – Review

December 3, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Most attempts to summarise the plot of Black Sea leave it sounding about as hackneyed as they come: a recently laid-off submarine captain leads a team of British and Russian sailors to find a sunken U-boat filled with Nazi gold. Chuck in the new dad here on his first voyage and the tension as different nationalities work together and you might worry that the film is one “It’s my last day before retirement…” speech away from collapsing under the weight of its own clichés.

The good news is that, clichéd as it may sound (and indeed is at certain points) there’s something more interesting lurking under the surface in this submarine thriller. For one, the film is utterly unashamed of its working class hero leads. Despite early signs that the film’s core conflict would fall along national lines, the real divide is indeed between the uniformly working class crew and the company man Daniels (Scoot McNairy), quickly nicknamed ‘Banker’ despite his protestations that he doesn’t even work for a bank.

Screenwriter Dennis Kelly (best known for Channel 4’s Utopia) isn’t content to simply settle for a tale of the evil rich man taking advantage of hard working blue collar types, and also takes the chance to consider the potential negative effects of working class anger, particularly through Jude Law’s Captain Robinson. The film tackles the question with all the subtlety of a freight train, especially as it nears the end, but it adds an interesting wrinkle to the drama, and a complexity that some might not expect coming in.

Black Sea is a thriller first and foremost, and here it delivers. There’s plenty of the usual submarine antics, with water bursting in at points and no shortage of running down cramped corridors. The script does its best to keep things interesting by allowing the threat to develop as the film goes on, with loyalties mutating and shifting, leaving no clear answers as to who’s to blame for everything that’s gone wrong, or who’s the biggest danger at any given point. Director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) maintains a claustrophobic tone both inside and outside the sub, as even external shots of the vessel are tight, presenting the ocean as an oppressive, constricting force.

The ever-reliable Jude Law gives a solid performance as the tortured captain, though doesn’t quite convince in some of the weightier emotional moments. You’ll wish we saw more of Michael Smiley’s Reynolds and Grigoriy Dobrygin’s Morozov, who are both clearly not only the most competent men aboard, but also the most enjoyable to watch. Dobrygin in particular makes the best of a small role, marking him as someone to watch, following his recent turn alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man.

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Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is its wicked sense of humour, leveraging some surprisingly funny moments even out of the film’s darkest sections. There’s real wit in the script, which helps balance the dark themes and ensures that this is no dour slog, but is instead a pretty enjoyable ride.

Black Sea does dive a little too deeply into clichéd waters, but strong direction and a witty script keep it moving along nicely, and you might find that there’s more depth here than first appearances suggest.

Black Sea is released in UK cinemas on December 5th

Dominic Preston