By John DeFore
A study of longing in conditions both desperate and profound, Wim Wenders' Submergence follows lovers who, having known each other just a day or three, must endure a separation that may never end. James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander make a photogenic pair in this sometimes sweepingly romantic film, the most roundly satisfying fiction feature Wenders has made since, well, that first one about the angel so in love he gives up immortality. More conventional than Wenders' best-loved work, it should manage to please some old fans while reaching — thanks to star power — younger moviegoers who've never heard of him.
More thematically restrained than some of Wenders' grander films, this one is only about love, the origins of life, the increasing scarcity of natural resources and the conflict between the West and radical Islamist terrorism. But where he has occasionally had a weakness for clunky allegory or let his narratives' themes spin out of control (as in the thought-provoking but hydra-like Until the End of the World), this one, with Erin Dignam's script adapting a novel by J.M. Ledgard, finds natural places for its concerns. Its intelligent pairing of real-world crises with heartache calls to mind Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of John le Carré's The Constant Gardener, though this film lacks that one's involving mystery.
McAvoy is James More (that's with one "o," like Sir Thomas; both men are self-sacrificing idealists). He's a spy, about to go to Somalia to hunt a terrorist who worked with Osama bin Laden. (Dig the high-tech if unlikely way he gets his assignment, wandering through an art museum and pretending to be looking at the interactive audio guide.)
Posing as a well-digging expert for a British charity working in Africa, James takes a pre-mission holiday in Normandy, where he meets Dani Flinders (Vikander), who's preparing for a scary trip of her own. She's a bio-mathematician, which means, "I apply mathematics to the life of the ocean." She will soon head to the Arctic Circle, where a tiny submersible will take her to gather specimens at some of the deepest depths of the ocean. She and her peers expect the work to have a world-altering impact on our ideas about life here and elsewhere in the universe.
As we watch the two charm each other on the beach and stroll atop chalky cliffs, we already know that James will soon be the prisoner of al Qaeda, tortured and starving. Dani will be setting out on her expedition, wondering why the amazing guy she met hasn't replied to her texts for a month. ("I've never been lonely before," she tells a colleague, threatening to make all the mere humans in the audience hate her before the movie even gets going.)
After these quick flash-forwards of isolation, the film enjoys its lush idyll in Normandy, where crashing waves, crackling fireplaces, and Fernando Velazquez's romantic score ensure we get enough to last us through the squalor to come. McAvoy is a charmer with soul and mysteries; Vikander looks straight into the camera and describes the five increasingly forlorn strata of the sea.
The hour before they part is surprisingly affecting, thanks to the unpredictable intrusion of larger human issues. And then we're back in a filthy jail; back on a sea-swept scientific vessel. It's much easier to dramatize his pain than hers. Dani, who at least initially simply worries that James has lost interest, does a lot of staring at her phone, growing increasingly fragile as she tries to prepare for her big dive. Sad to say, the most dramatic action she takes is to ask for a quick shore leave because she's getting no reception on her phone.
James, meanwhile, has several encounters that should mean the end of his life but don't — most of them are taunts meant to break his will and make him admit he's a spy. He's able to have philosophical discussions with, for instance, a doctor (Alexander Siddig) who is sworn to save lives but works for suicide bombers.
Viewers may feel their stomachs clench, worrying that the film is about to lurch out of balance and start preaching. But when James is alone in his cell, it's Dani he mutters to, and we get just enough cozy flashbacks to the two of them in bed (he reads John Donne to her) to remind us what the story is really about. Even seasoned filmgoers may have difficulty guessing whether this separation will end joyously or in tragedy. Either way, there will probably be tears.