I’m a member of the Dallas Film Society (if you live in Dallas, join!) and membership occasionally allows me to get sneak preview screeners of films that haven’t come out yet. It makes me feel all special because I get to see movies before all you normies. It also lets me see films that I didn’t even know existed before I got the screener invite. Black Sea was one of those movies.
The film comes out on limited release on January 23rd (it hits Dallas a week after that on January 30th). January and February are normally the dead months for movies. Studios shove movies they’re not exactly confident in during these time slots because it’s historically the slowest time for theater visits. It’s cold and dark out and people would rather stay at home. So I went into this film not knowing anything about it and not expecting much. I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty good, albeit a little derivative.
The easiest way to explain Black Sea is that it’s a submarine heist movie. In the 1940s during WW2 Hitler had asked Russia for a payment of gold to demonstrate their commitment to neutrality in the conflict. According to this film, Russia had complied with this request and filled a German U-boat with the gold. Before it made its return, the submarine was sunk. Germany invaded Russia and the gold itself was forgotten. Forgotten that is, until submarine captain Robinson, played by Jude Law, learns that the U-boat has been found on a ridge in the Black Sea. The sub is in disputed Russian/Georgian territory, meaning it can’t be legally obtained by either country without causing an international incident. But Captain Robinson, recently laid off from his salvaging job, sees an opportunity to screw the company that screwed him and get rich in the process; take a sub down and steal the gold right out from under them.
Like any good heist movie (and any good submarine movie for that matter) Black Sea has an ensemble cast. Each has their own story; they’re on the boat for their own reasons. But their common thread is desperation. Most of the cast is retired military that have been screwed over in some way or another. They’re working dead-end jobs for barely any money. They’re people with nothing to lose but everything to gain. Half Russian and half English, it’s the mix of people and personality types that give the story conflict.
Jude Law plays the complicated main character, Captain Robinson. Robinson is a man disappointed with how his life has turned out. He sacrificed everything for the job, including his marriage, and is suddenly, unceremoniously let go. He sees the gold heist as a way to not only get back at those that have wronged him, but perhaps get his wife back. Jude Law plays Robinson with a quiet power. He’s a man who is forced to lead this ragtag group of would-be gold thieves constantly at odds. Failure is not an option for Robinson. The gold is his ticket back to his life and without it he is nothing. There’s a kind of fierce sort of hidden insanity behind his performance. As the stakes in the movie are raised, Jude Law slowly lets that insanity seep out. It’s a wonderful performance.
The best part about this movie is that it contains the good parts of both heist movies and submarine movies. We get to explore the quest for the payoff and how greed and desire cloud character’s judgement; how people who normally behave rationally can be corrupted by the idea of money. The film, with its great cast allows us to explore both ends of this spectrum. Because we’re in a submarine, we’re also confronted with those problems: the confined spaces, the constant danger. As the conflict between characters escalates, it’s juxtaposed with the external conflict the sub faces from the environment.
The direction by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is spot on. In any submarine movie, it’s extremely important to capture the forced isolation and confinement, and Macdonald achieves this throughout. The movie was filmed on an actual submarine for two weeks before moving to the set. This allowed both the cast and crew the ability to understand the dimensions that they were working with, like how to get the camera through the sub, and how to move fluidly in a cramped space. While the set is clearly bigger than what it would actually be in a real submarine (sometimes you have to make some sacrifices for the story to work) the way the film is shot ratchets up the tension amazingly. There’s a wonderful shot in the movie as the sub is about to dive: Jude Law closes the top hatch and we pause on the sealed hatch for a few beats, which cements the finality of the action. We’re sealed in the sub now. Trapped. There are parts of the movie that require the camera to go outside the sub, but Macdonald uses these scenes sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. Other than that, the camera remains trapped inside the sub with the characters. We feel the confinement.
The themes in this movie are nothing new. We’ve seen these stories before, many times. An examination of greed, how money blinds you. The dangers of working in a submarine and the conflicts that arise when you trap people of different personality types in that close proximity. But the combination of them make the film work in new and exciting ways. Black Sea is definitely a derivative film and it’s not as good as the best heist movies, nor the best submarine movies. But it’s an exciting ride by a good director with some sound, layered performances. If you’re looking for a movie to see during the January/February doldrums, you can’t go wrong with Black Sea.