In a swanky hotel in the north of France, two people preparing for difficult missions meet and fall for each other. Danielle (Alicia Vikander) is a bio-mathematician gearing up for a deep-sea diving project. James (James McAvoy) is a Scot, and vague when it comes to his career, telling Danielle that he lives in Africa where he helps governments with water management.
Actually, James takes clandestine meetings with people in art galleries and talks about terrorists and plots against Europe - James is a spy; MI6, or something along those lines. He's resting in the hotel before travelling to Somalia to meet a contact who knows something about jihadis who hope to bomb Europe. James keeps Danielle in the dark about all this and the couple enjoy a lovely couple of days together, dining, mucking about on the beach and eventually ending up in bed together. Danielle tries to explain what she's about: that the depths of the ocean could reveal secrets about life that we don't know, and James drinks it all up.
But the fun at the hotel eventually has to end. James is spurred into action and heads for Somalia promising to keep in touch with Danielle. His mission is a disaster from the get-go: he's captured and flung into a filthy cell by jihadists. They torture him, but he holds firm and slowly learns more about the terrorists. Meanwhile, Danielle is ready to go down to the ocean floor, but the lack of contact from James has left her distraught and distracted.
Directed by Wim Wenders and adapted from the novel by J.M. Ledgard, Submergence has a lot going on. It's a genre-busting tale, incorporating the love story between Danielle and James, a spy thriller thanks to James' mission in Somalia, and an almost sci-fi element concerning Danielle's work under the sea. All of these elements are spun together with Wenders' signature flair, but the overall result is a bit of a mess.
A lot of the film's time is spent after James and Danielle have parted - James captured in Somalia and Danielle on her ship preparing for her submarine plunge. The couple picture each other and remember the fab times they had back in Normandy. The other elements of the plot - what the Somali radicals are all about, or what Danielle and her baffling expedition is about - seem a bit vague and tacked on. It's all a little flimsy.
But there are pleasing moments. The rugged and beautiful coastline of Normandy is the backdrop for the initial romance and some of these scenes are beautiful, as the couple walk above chalky cliff faces and frolic in the grounds of the hotel. There's a starkness to the Somalia footage (Djibouti actually doubling for Somalia) which is also worth seeing. Some of the flashback scenes, where James and Danielle are separated but remembering their time together are also pleasingly done, the shots put together crisply and cleverly.
But it's not enough to hold it all together. The film, like its many and varied backdrops, grows too unwieldy in the end, failing in its attempts at fun escapism and not really saying much about anything either.