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
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.