‘Black Sea’: Drama beneath the surface

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“Black Sea” is an action thriller, which is set largely aboard a submarine.

Jude Law portrays Robinson (a character whose first name is tellingly never specified), a former officer in Britain’s Royal Navy. After his military career ended, he had spent over a decade working as a captain for an Aberdeen-based ocean salvage firm.

Now, he finds himself unceremoniously discharged from the company. He discovers that the same fate has befallen quite a few of his colleagues.

As the laid off men congregate at a local pub, they bemoan their callous treatment by their erstwhile employer over pints of beer. After working in the salvage business, the men have been relegated to the scrapheap of life. What will they do now that they have no jobs?

The disconsolate Robinson is approached by Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a twitchy American. He is the emissary of a wealthy investor, Lewis (Tobias Menzies), who has a proposition for the out of work seaman. Robinson is blindfolded and driven to Lewis’ palatial estate.

There, Robinson meets Lewis and hears his decidedly unconventional business proposition. Lewis recounts the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact during World War II. During this temporary truce, the Germans surreptitiously loaded gold ingots onto a U-boat moored in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. En route back to Germany, the U-boat sunk. In the chaos surrounding the final throes of the war, the secret shipment was forgotten.

At the depths of the Black Sea, the water is anoxic and decomposition is minimal. Divers have encountered sunken Roman galleons with their masts still intact, notwithstanding the passage of millennia. Therefore, Lewis posits that a fortune in gold ingots is still there, lurking inside of a U-boat, which is submerged in Russian waters.

Can Robinson navigate a submarine through the Black Sea and elude detection by the Russian fleet? What’s his motivation to undertake this perilous mission? How about a $2 million share of the submerged lucre?

Robinson assembles a crew consisting of Brits and Ruskies. It contains some interestingly drawn characters. Since he is the only bilingual onboard, Morosov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a key go-between. It is the first time in a submarine for 18-year-old Tobin (Bobby Schofield). The naïf is bullied by older shipmates who regard the onboard presence of a submarine virgin to be bad luck. Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) is an exceptionally skilled diver with a sociopathic streak. It doesn’t take much to set him off. Zaytsev (Sergey Puskepalis) is another engaging screen presence. After a heated spat, he glowers menacingly and threatens a British rival in Russian. The ominous words translate as, “When we get to the surface, I will eat your liver.” Although many of the remaining crew members are less developed, they function well as an ensemble.

In the lead role, Jude Law is excellent. He captures a certain flinty resolve and a determination to do the right thing. His paternalistic attitude towards the young neophyte crew member provides an extra dimension to his character.  Law does a credible job of mastering a Scottish brogue.

The script by first-time screenwriter, Dennis Kelly, embodies an engaging premise and some nifty plot convolutions. It contains a keen class consciousness, pitting the working class stiffs against corporate oligarchs.

Director, Kevin Mcdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “How I  Live Now”) does an excellent job of progressively ratcheting up the tension. He milks the escalating tensions between the British and Russian crewmates for maximum effect.

Throughout history, Sevastopol’s status as a warm weather port has made it a coveted location. It figured prominently in a siege during the Crimean War. More recently, Vladimir Putin created an international cause célèbre when he deployed military troop to forcibly seize Sevastopol and the rest of the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine. Here is with the screenplay’s imaginative history intersects with real-life events. Before principal photography began, director McDonald and his cinematographer Christopher Ross shot background footage. They had every intention of returning there with the cast and crew to film additional footage. However, once the situation there turned volatile, it precluded the implementation of the original plans.

A submarine setting is rife with dramatic possibilities. Fathoms beneath the surface, the sense of claustrophobia is ubiquitous and inescapable. As a character in the film reflects, “Outside it’s just dark, cold death.” This subgenre includes a surprising number of top tier films, including “Das Boot,” “Red October,” and “Crimson Tide.”

“Black Sea” adds the gold lust theme straight out of John Ford’s classic, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” to the mix.

While “Black Sea” falls short of masterpiece status, it is an engaging film, distinguished by fine acting and a pervasive sense of atmosphere.

*** ½ R (for language throughout, some graphic images and violence) 115 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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