The German-born film director Wim Wenders has almost always been a nomad. The heroes and antiheroes of his films dart restlessly between continents, between planes spiritual and material, finding themselves with no direction home, if a home they ever had.
In “Submergence” Mr. Wenders depicts two wandering souls who find each other, fall in love and part: one to explore the darkest depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the other to wind up chained in a windowless room, held captive by Somali jihadists.
“Submergence” was adapted by the screenwriter Erin Dignam from J.M. Ledgard’s acclaimed novel of that name. The book is a romance, a thriller and a meditation on geopolitical conundrums, ideology, science and metaphysics. It is written in precise, refined, allusive prose. But Ms. Dignam’s script distills the novel into middlebrow Hollywood treacle.
James McAvoy plays James, a British spy whose cover identity as a water engineer he extends to his personal life. Alicia Vikander is Danielle, a scientist. The two meet at a quiet, very high-end hotel on France’s Norman coast, where each is decompressing before a mission. When Danielle explains her work to James, he calls her an “oceanographer,” and she tells him there’s no such thing, really, as oceanography, and that she’s a bio-mathematician. Soon they are frolicking on a beach, albeit with some seriousness, around the relics of World War II.
Showing the chemistry between these two characters in the boy-and-girl-fall-hard scenes is no problem for Mr. Wenders. Many of his pictures, including some of his greatest, are, to put it bluntly, swoony hymns to hetero-normativity. (See, for example, the finale of his 1987 “Wings of Desire.”) There’s a scene in this film in which James and Danielle chat in a wooded area, and the way Mr. Wenders frames the characters, the shadows of tree branches falling on their attractive faces, and how he makes the sound of a light wind prominent under their conversation, casts an intimate spell. Which is what cinema is supposed to do, arguably.