The hunt for men is over

This cracking sub­ma­rine thriller, star­ring Jude Law, is the best boy’s ad­ven­ture that Alas­tair Ma­cLean never wrote, says Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET REVIEWS -

BLACK SEA ★★★★ Di­rected by Kevin Macdon­ald. Star­ring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Karl Davies, Michael Smi­ley, Konstantin Khaben­sky, David Thre­fall, Grig­oriy Do­bry­gin, Jodie Whit­taker 15A cert, gen­eral re­lease, 114 min

If you are a man of a cer­tain age (and I prob­a­bly do mean “man”), there may be a teenage boy buried within your psy­che who feels “they re­ally just don’t make ’em like they used to”.

For decades after the sec­ond World War, the nov­els of Alis­tair Ma­cLean – hearty broth such as The Guns of Navarone and Ice Sta­tion Ze­bra – pro­vided the ba­sis for a stream of ro­bust, un­com­pli­cated films in which men were men and women were almost al­ways some­where else.

After the crim­i­nally un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated How I Live Now, Kevin Macdon­ald kicks back with a ter­rific sub­ma­rine thriller mar­i­nated in Eau de Ma­cLean.

A bunch of guys, each with a sig­nif­i­cant tal­ent, come to­gether to at­tempt a dan­ger­ous mis­sion in an in­hos­pitable part of the world. There are some care­fully ar­ranged catas­tro­phes. In­ter­nal con­flicts pull them apart. Women know their place: sit­ting qui­etly in misty, idyl­lic flash­backs.

Ac­tu­ally, we do Den­nis Kelly a dis­ser­vice. The writer of Chan­nel 4’s ter­rific Utopia and Matilda: The Mu­si­cal has fash­ioned a script with real po­lit­i­cal trac­tion.

Jude Law plays Robin­son, a Scot­tish sub­mariner who, in the open­ing scenes, gets laid off by a sal­vage company. Drown­ing sor­rows in the ar­che­typal grim Brit Pic pub (The Loach and Fer­ret, I be­lieve), Robin­son falls into con­ver­sa­tion with still more mis­er­able sacked col­leagues.

One has a story to tell. It seems that, dur­ing the war, a Nazi sub­ma­rine sank in the Black Sea with sev­eral tons of gold aboard. For one rea­son or another, no­body has ever made a se­ri­ous at­tempt to haul the stuff back on to land.

After strik­ing a deal with a sin­is­ter man in a big house, Robin­son puts to­gether a team com­pris­ing dour Scot­tish blokes, fu­ri­ous Rus­sian geezers, one an­noyed North­ern Ir­ish­man (the peer­less Michael Smi­ley) and one de­ranged Aus­tralian (Ben Men­del­sohn).

Macdon­ald and Kelly don’t worry too much about the me­chan­ics of the plot’s early stages. With a few quick cuts and a few snatches of ex­po­si­tional di­a­logue, we are trans­ported to Sev­astopol for the be­gin­ning of the proper ac­tion. Robin­son makes his po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion clear by ex­plain­ing that ev­ery crew mem­ber, what­ever his role and from wher­ever he emerges, is to have an equal share of the loot.

In its loftier mo­ments, Black Sea has some­thing of An­i­mal Farm about it (not a com­par­i­son that Alis­tair Ma­cLean of­ten trig­gered). Mis­used and dis­carded by cap­i­tal­ism, Robin­son sees the mis­sion as an ex­er­cise in class war­fare. “They” have shafted the work­ers for long enough. Of course, it’s not too long be­fore – in the spirit of The Trea­sure of the Sierra Madre – ten­sions emerge and Robin­son ends up be­hav­ing like one of “them”.

None of those sub­texts would be worth en­ter­tain­ing if the spine of the film were not so strong. Hap­pily, Macdon­ald has cast his film in­ge­nious- ly: the mob mem­bers are all tough in sub­tly dif­fer­ent ways, and Law has suf­fi­cient charisma to dis­tract from an Aberdeen ac­cent that can’t quite stand up straight.

The film-mak­ers dig out at least three top-notch set­pieces – hid­ing from pur­suers above; a tense walk across the ocean bed; jour­ney through a deep ravine – that surge with well-paced ten­sion.

It is a sad truth that such af­fairs too of­ten end up ei­ther pe­ter­ing into con­fu­sion or ty­ing up loose ends in an overly neat bow. There’s a lit­tle of both go­ing on here. Black Sea de­liv­ers us to a fi­nal punc­tu­a­tion point, but some of the sub-clauses and par­en­thet­i­cal asides seem con­tra­dic­tory.

What can’t be faulted is the tex­ture of the piece. Clogged up with oil, seeped in brine, Black Sea sends you forth ea­ger for a hot shower, a chew of ba­con and a shot of warm rum. They do still oc­ca­sion­ally make ’em like this.

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