Black Sea – Review (*** 1/2)

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Despite its low marketing presence and bizarre decision to completely forego the festival circuit, Kevin Macdonald’s (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) submarine-set thriller wrings plenty of tension out of its gleefully old-school set-up, and despite the occasional misstep, is a visceral ride well worth taking.

Scottish freelance submariner Robinson (Jude Law) is let go by his gainful employer of 12 years, and in an effort to set himself up for the future, plans a submarine mission to the Black Sea to search for some hidden Nazi gold. Amassing a half-British, half-Russian rag-tag crew of similarly-shafted seamen, differences soon enough arise, and it becomes clear that the men are as threatening to their own survival as the bleak emptiness outside of their boat.

Macdonald’s movie smartly doesn’t waste much time anchoring itself down with a laboured set-up; Robinson loses his job, he mopes for a few minutes, we learn that he has an estranged family, and then he gets the band together for what is for its remainder a searing, grim and highly entertaining film.

Though viewers likely won’t find themselves remembering many (if any) of the characters’ names, the crewmen all still feel thoroughly fleshed-out, be it the sketchy, nervy American (Scoot McNairy), the greedy, impulsive xenophobe (Ben Mendelsohn) or the only pragmatic one of the lot (Michael Smiley). These clashing personalities combine with the mostly un-subtitled, increasingly frustrated Russian crewmen to fill a volatile powder keg that makes the recovery of the gold utterly secondary to the mere issue of survival.

While the initial act of violence which maintains the antagonism throughout is admittedly a touch convoluted, it’s easily forgiven when what follows is so brilliantly taut. Macdonald’s claustrophobic, visually lavish direction and the strong performances throughout – Law is especially grand, Scottish accent and all – combine with Dennis Kelly’s (Utopia) relentlessly intense script to deliver what just might be the hidden British gem of 2014.

What Macdonald and Kelly have done here is strip away almost all of the unsavoury flab that movies like this tend to over-encumber themselves with – though viewers will still need to sit through a few hilariously naff flashbacks, complete with garish soft focus and what appears to be CGI lens flare – and the result is lean, no-nonsense filmmaking of a high order. Surprises come thick and fast, the body count ratchets up, and audiences will have a hard time trying to work out how Jude and co. will ever make it out alive (if they even do at all).

Dripping with paranoia from first minute to last and flashing a keen yet non-invasive political context, Black Sea’s near-invisible advertising campaign suggests it will likely sail under the radar during its theatrical run, though it certainly has the potential to become a cult hit on home video down the line. 

*** 1/2

Black Sea is in UK cinemas now and US cinemas January 23rd


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