The British indie film Black Sea is just as much about class relationships, corporations versus individuals and language and cultural barriers as it is a gripping, claustrophobic submarine drama. It’s also really good, with splendid performances and engaging visuals.
Robinson (Jude Law) has been a submarine captain for the last thirty years, and when his most recent employer, an underwater salvage company, lets him go with a paltry severance and no prospects, it’s a hard blow for a man who decries “I even sacrificed my family for this job”. His friends in the unnamed British port city have also fallen on hard times, and they commiserate over a round of beer at the local pub.
When a mate tells them that the company found a sunken U-Boat from WWII that’s full of gold and only 100 meters below the surface of the Black Sea, Robinson gets very interested. His friend Daniels (Scoot McNairy) sets up a meeting with a shady benefactor who agrees to fund the illegal salvage operation in return for 40% of any gold salvaged.
Against his will, Daniels ends up joining the motley crew Robinson assembles, mostly of retired British Navy, along with a contingent of Russian submariners to help run the ancient Russian submarine they pick up in Sevastopol, Crimea. Notable in the crew are Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) as the ceaselessly hostile diver and the youngster Liam (Karl Davies) who Robinson takes under his wing as the troubled voyage proceeds.
It’s an audacious plan: scoot in under the Russian Navy, find the sunken U-Boat, use divers to swim from one sub to the other, shuttle the gold across, then sail away to enjoy the payoff. As the film proceeds, however, it becomes less and less about the gold and more about survival: turns out that not only is the crew sloppy and inattentive due to their increasing antipathy towards each other, but the submarine itself is falling apart too.
Submarine movies tend to be almost like stage productions, with everything happening in small interior spaces. And there are a lot of movies that take place in submarines, including the superb Hunt for Red October and gripping Das Boot. Black Sea doesn’t stretch the popular subgenre, but there are plenty of moments of anxiety as the crew falls apart — after all, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that each person that dies means that the share of the gold for the remaining crew increases — and the ship falls apart.
Law is a terrific actor and director Kevin Macdonald delivers another solid thriller with Black Sea, even if the story becomes rather predictable and the ending is maudlin and suggests that writer Dennis Kelly simply ran out of ideas. If you like war movies, if you like submarine films, Black Sea is a good addition to the oevre and one that’s worth a watch.