THERE’S NOTHING like an unexpected accent to make an actor temporarily seem out of his depth.
BLACK SEA (15)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley, Scoot McNairy
Star rating: ***
That’s certainly the case with Jude Law in Black Sea. With his receding hairline shaved right back, the surprise comes not from the fact that the pretty-boy looks that sustained him through his 20s and 30s have started to fade a little, but that the words emanating from his mouth appear to have a distinct Aberdonian burr. Which isn’t to suggest he’s turned into a Caledonian Dick Van Dyke, but having opted to play a Scot, it does require a period of readjustment to get used to him in this guise – not unlike the one that Law has undergone more generally in recent years as he’s started pursuing more interesting character parts than obvious leading man roles.
This last fact is perhaps why he’s committed himself to mastering his character’s tricky intonation when nothing in the script for this submarine thriller specifies that he had to be Scottish. In playing an embittered, newly unemployed marine salvage expert his character’s regional specificity provides some extra working-class grit, bolstering the deep-rooted resentment he feels towards the corporate class that has forced once-proud grafters like him to lead lives of quiet desperation now that the world has changed around them.
That’s the big theme underlying Black Sea. Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Dennis Kelly (creator of Channel 4’s Utopia), the film resembles Macdonald’s Oscar-winning hit The Last King of Scotland in its attempts to use genre thrills to explore social ills. Beginning with commercial submariner Robinson (Law) losing his job and getting a paltry pay-off on account of his employer’s eschewal of all forms of worker contracts, the film serves up repeated digs at the merciless nature of big business and the culture of fear it fosters in those it exploits. But relax: this isn’t a didactic, oh-so-worthy Ken Loach film. Instead it owes more to movies like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and its William Friedkin-directed US remake Sorcerer – and there are a few nods to classics both old (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and new (Three Kings) as Robinson is alerted to a potential deep sea salvage operation in which millions of dollars in thought-to-be-lost gold bullion are up for grabs.
The gold is reputed to be an old Nazi stash, sunk off the Crimean peninsula in 1941 while en route from Russia in a German U-Boat. Funded by an almost comically wealthy backer, Robinson is charged by his new boss’s snivelling corporate lackey (Scoot McNairy) to assemble a half British, half Russian crew and take a rusting submarine to the darkest depths of the Black Sea to retrieve the sunken treasure – with each man promised an equal share in the bounty once their employer has taken a cut. As Robinson assembles his rag tag group of grizzled seafarers, the film almost slips into parody, with each man given an explicit flaw that would seem to telegraph the impending disasters awaiting them (one crew member is actually described as “a psychopath, but a great diver”). It over-eggs Law’s personal torment too by having him repeatedly look at a wallet-sized photo of his estranged son and giving him flashbacks to happier times with his ex-wife (Jodie Whittaker). This is a film that likes to spell everything out and isn’t averse to using hokey methods to do it.
But it also overcomes these issues with some entertaining casting and Macdonald’s ability to effectively ratchet up the tension. In terms of the former, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Smiley and McNairy are the stand-outs, with Mendelsohn revelling in his character’s knife-wielding intimidation games, Smiley good as the wily peacekeeper with a nice line in penguin metaphors, and McNairy managing to humanise a character so hateful he’s referred to by both the Brits and the Russians as “The Banker” – the ultimate insult in these austere times. That said, an attempt to create a father-son bond between Law’s character and a 17-year-old homeless kid he recruits for the mission does stretch credulity a bit (as well as opening the door for yet more clichés). But Law’s good at taking his own character to some dark places, particularly as Robinson’s actions start to look a little unhinged in the face of terrible odds.
The film also throws up a surprise or two that offsets the obvious but effective way Macdonald creates an uneasy dynamic between the Brits and the Russians. And he marshals the special effects well enough too, using CGI judiciously to give a sense of the literal depths to which the characters are plunging as they’re figuratively hitting rock bottom. As such, Black Sea may not be a groundbreaking drama, but it’s an effective genre thriller that grapples with real world issues and offers another interesting challenge for Law – accent and all.