Corrections were made to this review on Jan. 31, 2006.
“Cargo” is a brooding, Conradian yarn of moral malaise aboard a decrepit transport ship carrying an unholy assortment of contraband, human and otherwise. Focused upon a young stowaway whose presence forces the crew’s horrible secrets to the surface, lean script by frequent Ken Loach scenarist Paul Laverty submerges scarcely below the water line a familiar European self-loathing for continuing colonial attitudes and misdeeds that’s getting awfully shopworn. First feature by vet narrative documentary filmmaker Clive Gordon possesses a sober dramatic force but is so soaked in the unsavory doings of the rancid crew members as to waterlog the venture commercially.
Inspired by a newspaper story of a Greek ship’s captain throwing stowaways overboard rather than facing huge fines for bringing them into port, Laverty’s script is layered by thick slices of menace, distrust, ill-intent, inner decay and criminality; no one is remotely innocent here — only degrees of malfeasance vary.
After gratuitously stealing from an African bazaar and oddly deciding to head-butt the policeman examining his passport, young German Chris (Daniel Bruehl) takes refuge in a rough bar before scampering on board a rust-bucket headed back to Europe with crates of illegal exotic birds.
Quickly discovered, Chris is regarded with hostility by the beefy crew and assigned to kitchen duty under the balky Baptist (Luis Tosar), who warns him to keep his head down, an attitude the impudent interloper finds impossible to maintain throughout the 10-day voyage. Weird occurences quickly crop up — a crazy crew member rants naked in the crow’s nest, Chris thinks he hears men being tossed overboard at night — and heavily enigmatic phrases are dropped (often to the accompaniment of portentous music) by the ship’s mysterious, tight-lipped captain, Brookes (Peter Mullan), most memorably, “Have you ever asked yourself why you have never sunk your teeth into a bar of African chocolate?”
Lo and behold, two African stowaways are shortly found in the hold with the birds. At this, Baptist opens up to Chris with a dreadful story of what happened on board more than a year earlier, something so bad that if an outsider comes to know it, he must join the crew’s private guilt club or suffer the consequences.
This sets the clock ticking for Chris as to when everyone will find out what he knows, what will happen to the Africans and what the cracked captain has in mind. Numerous confrontations and further revelations ensue, leading to a tragically ironic conclusion rife with classical religious imagery.
In addition to resonant echoes of the moral quandaries suffered by seafaring men voyaging in Asian and African waters in Joseph Conrad’s fiction, there is a surfeit of moldy symbolism about European exploitation of the Third World: The caged birds all too explicitly represent slaves; there are the stowaway Africans themselves, whose treatment at the hands of the whites is shown as being every bit as bad as it was in centuries past; the significantly named Baptist, the only member of the crew with a detectable conscience, has nonetheless lost his religion (like Europe); the young stowaway mostly behaves like an arrogant opportunist, and the man in charge is the most decayed of the lot.
While it does hold interest, the drama’s deterministic negativity is not particularly rewarding or complex. Performances by the estimable leads Mullan, Bruehl (“Good Bye Lenin!”), speaking well-nigh perfect English, and Tosar are credible but grim. Gordon’s direction favors plenty of leading and following shots through corridors, and lensing aboard an actual cargo ship provides the desired cramped, claustrophobic feel.
Location work was done in Ghana and Barcelona.