The Chamber (2016)

“Originally a DSRV, that’s a Deep-Submersible Rescue Vehicle… I don’t know where she was from originally, but the Norwegian Navy got a hold of it in ’82, decommissioned in ’89, reappropriated by the commercial company Stolt Virgin a year later, and now rented out cheap to the Incheon Company and the Koreans.”

The speaker is the pilot Mats (Johannes Kuhnke), describing the different uses to which his Cold War-era sub the Aurora has been put over the decades. “It was built by the Brits,” adds one of his three American guests, Holmes (Elliott Levey). “Before Norway got her, she was British.”

Ben Parker’s feature debut The Chamber has a similarly mixed pedigree. For it too is ultimately British, but its star Kuhnke (best know for Force Majeure) is as Swedish as the character he plays, while the actors (Levey, Charlotte Salt, James McArdle) playing its American characters are themselves British- and its action takes place on and under the Yellow Sea off Korea, mostly within the confines of a submarine designed for a crew of two and desperately cramped with four aboard. The film’s claustrophobic provenance can be traced back at least as far as Wolfgang Petersen’s wartime Das Boot (1981), although it also has much in common with Ron Scalpello’s diving-bell disaster film Pressure (2015).

Mats’ commercial surveillance vessel is commandeered by the US military to help search for a top-secret MacGuffin sunk in North Korean waters, sending the Aurora right back to her Cold War origins. After disaster strikes, the four find themselves trapped below in an overturned tin can with water getting in and options running out, forcing international tensions to take a backseat to the explosive situation within.

In this pressure-cooker environment, Mats and the Americans’ commander ‘Red’ (Salt), though initially at loggerheads with each other, grow ever closer, even (in the most unusual of circumstances) exchanging a kiss, an embrace and clothes, and becoming quite literally tied together. So while The Chamber is certainly a survival thriller, it is also a submerged romance of sorts. There are hints of an existentialist undercurrent here too, as these submariners must face up to their mortality without being sure if there is anyone up there watching over them or looking after their interests. Yet in its confluence of geopolitical matters and more intimate concerns, The Chamber does also occasionally succumb to cliché, with its pent-up dialectic often surfacing as little more than repetitive squabbling.

Still, if Mats’ words about the Aurora – “She’s weak and she’s old” – perhaps also hold true for The Chamber itself, they are intended with undoubted affection, in a film that does come in the end with a female character far more robust and enduring than she first appears.

© Anton Bitel