Not your typical January fare in the least, Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea is an intense, claustrophobic, and exhausting ride. It’s not often we get submarine films and this one is, very easily, among the best of them. Blending heart-pounding tension with a fair bit of humor and wit, the story is a high-seas heist film that echoes Aliens about much as it does Ocean’s 11. But be prepared, this is not a rollicking adventure, it’s a pensive thriller. This British film will leave you both shaken and stirred. Further, admission gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.
Even at the bottom of the sea, with things, at times, going so slow it’s nearly slow-motion, tension mounts to hair-pulling levels. Yet it’s to be expected with a seasoned filmmaker at the helm. Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland) ratchets up the excitement with a story as airtight as the environment. It’s a bold film and quality story that is also terrifically cast. Moreover, it’s one that takes chances every step of the way. So much so that the twists and turns are highly unexpected, and advance the plot in ways you, most likely, will never see coming.
The autenticity is incredible – from the claustrophobic confines of the real submarine, to the practical effects, and the Russian actors (some of which didn’t even speak English) – as Macdonald, known for as many documentaries as he has narratives, really prides himself on the tangible realness. It is intense.
The plot starts out pretty straight-forward but, in this fine story by Dennis Kelly, layers of distrust are added a bit at a time until this, fairly or unfairly, feels like John Carpenter’s The Thing on a submarine. It’s a top notch nail-biter and helping up the ante is the fantastic musical contribution from composer Ilan Eshkeri (47 Ronin). The score is a brilliant hybrid of orchestral sounds and makeshift noises which legitimately add to the metallic world the characters inhabit (check out our interview with Eshkeri here.)
Aside from Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are the most recognizable actors, at least to American audiences, yet the success of the ensemble cast largely comes from near anonymity. These actors embody their parts and help establish the authenticity Macdonald was aiming for. If you’ll recall K-19, the likes of Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson don’t exactly blend well into a Russian back drop now do they? Point, Macdonald!
The story continues to twist and, as more of the plot is revealed, Black Sea is revealed as a multitude of genres. It’s that careful juggling act (some might say borrowing act) that becomes the back bone in this time-bomb of a story. Things get ever more complex and intriguing when the two disparate and desperate parties of the sub team have to work together despite their feelings and attitudes. Not only to finish their doomed mission, but to stay alive.
Jude Law really shines here and, like last year’s Dom Hemingway (our favorite movie of 2014), fully disappears into the role. He’s helped of course by the colorful and well-rounded cast named above, but this film deserves more than a January release date. Black Sea feels like an anti-Hollywood film because of its bold choices and efforts to tell an original story…or at least put a worthwhile new spin on a familiar tale.