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Black Sea

This is how the director of The Last King of Scotland does an undersea treasure-hunt thriller.
By Sarah Ward
April 16, 2015
By Sarah Ward
April 16, 2015

For anyone with even the slightest claustrophobic tendencies, submarines probably don't sound too appealing. Nor will 12 men headed for wet depths, fighting over a pile of Russian gold and trapped in a secondhand vessel barely fit to sail. In fact, it sounds quite torturous.

That's the predicament at the heart of Black Sea, an underwater heist film bursting with pressure of both the deep-sea and crammed-together varieties. When veteran salvage captain Robinson (Jude Law) is given his marching orders after more than a decade of service, he cottons on to a guaranteed get-rich-quick scheme. Rounding up a crew of other discarded workers, he heads to the ocean floor to trawl for a treasure trove once meant for the Nazis.

Everything that can go wrong does, to paraphrase Murphy's law. Tensions rise between the half English, half Russian shipmates, with loud-mouthed diver Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) particularly unhappy about splitting the loot with his comrades. The presence of the American representative (Scoot McNairy) of the mission's wealthy backers only makes everyone anxious. And the rusty, submerged boat springs more than its fair share of breaks and leaks on its voyage.

There's a formula at work, filled with dire circumstances, desperate deeds and double-crossing, but there's also the involvement of director Kevin Macdonald, whose skills can't be underestimated. Few filmmakers make terse tales like the man behind Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, with Black Sea a worthy, if workmanlike addition to his growing resume.

Macdonald styles the movie not as a gold-snatching drama or a watery adventure, but as a horror movie steeped in greed. His film lays bare humanity's most self-serving motivations in an every-man-for-himself display of selfishness and survival, while heightening the oppression of the enclosed space. With its sustained atmosphere of unease and kill-or-be-killed progression, Black Sea is surprisingly more than a little reminiscent of that other great trapped-in-close-quarters effort: Alien. Yes, really.

The end result makes you sweat, even though guessing where the story is heading isn't difficult. And in a feature that really is about the journey rather than the destination, top marks must also go to cinematographer Christopher Ross (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll), who contrasts the many jumps and slides through cramped hallways with an unsettling awareness of the dark depths that surround the submarine.

Then there's the excellent cast, led by Law continuing his recent hot streak of good performances in things that aren't called Sherlock Holmes. He ensures Robinson avoids coming across as stir-crazy; with a weathered face and a furrowed brow, he's simply willing to do whatever it takes to turn every losing hand he is dealt into a win. While McNairy plays to type, as does Australia's latest great acting export, Mendelsohn, watching both doing what they do the best is never unwelcome.

Claustrophobia, be damned: these are fine folks and a finessed film that you'll want to sink to the bottom of the ocean with.

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