REVIEW: The Wolf’s Call (2019)

Chanteraide (François Civil) is a sonar specialist assigned to a French submarine. After a near-contact reveals an unidentified submarine of Russian design, he risks his career and criminal arrest in an attempt to properly identify the new vehicle. Meanwhile Russian aggression in Scandinavia risks all-out nuclear war with France – and Chanteraide’s mystery submarine appears to be involved.

The Wolf’s Call is a French military thriller written and directed by engineer-turned-diplomat-turned-screenwriter Antonin Baudry. It marks the directorial debut of the impressive multi-hyphenate, who has also written a two-volume graphic novel and is trained in cinematography. With that sort of background one expects something rich in both insight and intrigue. Sadly what is presented on screen feels unusually slight and badly structured. It is watchable, and certainly works as passable entertainment, but at the same time feels deeply disappointing. It is merely good, when it promises something more interesting.

Certainly the film is not lacking in quality performances. François Civil gives a nicely vulnerable turn as Chanteraide, nicknamed “Socks” by his fellow officers but struggling with clinical depression and an over-developed sense of curiosity. There is a satisfying level of detail put into his profession, listening to sonar and effectively acting as a submarine’s “eyes”. While the performance is good, the script does not support Civil well: more than a few of Chanteraide’s actions beggar belief, and chafe against the character quite badly.

In solid supporting roles are strong French actors including Omar Sy, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Reda Kateb. A lot of the film winds up involving panicky submarine crews shouting at one another, and all three men do a fantastic job of at least grounding scenes from their own end. Kateb is particularly strong as level-headed submarine captain Grandchamp. Despite women being allowed to serve on French submarines since 2017, Baudry keeps his vehicles entirely male here – as a result the only significant female character is Paula Beer as bookseller and love interest Diane. She has a bright sense of appeal, but feels a half-hearted addition to the film and relatively extraneous.

In the thick of things the film has its moments: the claustrophobia of submarines is well expressed, and features a strong use of both colour and sound. The latter is particularly important given the story focuses on Chanteraide’s gift for listening. Original moments come and go, but never quite come together. As noted earlier, the film feels badly structured. It takes a maddeningly long time to get to the main narrative, and once the story finally starts to rush along it is essentially already over.

To its credit, the film makes some unexpected story choices that give it a certain level of appeal, but too many characters make too many choices that do not ring true. There is a level of enjoyment to be had here, but by the end it is an oddly hollow experience. Fans of military thrillers will likely be satisfied, but in all honesty they deserve something a little better for their time and money.

The Wolf’s Call is available on Netflix in most territories, but Australian viewers looking for a proper big screen experience can see it at the Alliance Française French Film Festival from 10 March. Click here for more details.

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