Joyce Glasser reviews Compartment 6 (April 8, 2022) and then Curzon Home Cinema, Cert. 15, 106 mins. Finnish & Russian with English subtitles.
Some of the best – or at least the most fun – films of all time have taken place, entirely, or in part, on a train. Think back to Brief Encounter, North by Northwest, Murder on the Orient Express, The Station Agent, and Before Sunset to name a few. Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s most enjoyable films, The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train suggest that trains are not only places of romantic encounters, but danger zones.
Director Juho Kuosmanen’s entertaining, cunningly unpredictable and atmospheric Compartment 6 makes the most of a train journey due north, from Moscow to the Arctic port of Murmansk on the Barents Sea. He provides us with all we need for the journey: the requisite encounters, tension, danger zones, some odd meals and an unassuming story of an enigmatic relationship that draws out the best in two drifting, lost souls.
Finnish Archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) is visiting her girlfriend Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a literature professor in Moscow, but their long-distance romance is not going well. Irina is throwing a party, and paying more attention to her friends, and one in particular, than to Laura. Maybe the romance will get back on track when they set out the next day on their trip to Murmansk.
During an uncomfortable night together Irina informs Laura that she cannot accompany her to Murmansk and provides an excuse. Laura hoped to combine work with pleasure by studying the renown petroglyphs of Murmansk. Irina urges her to go as she claims that the sleeper train and hotel at Murmansk are prepaid.
The train is about as far from the Orient Express as you can imagine. In the tiny compartment where Irina should have been, is a crude, young Russian miner returning to work in Murmansk. His name is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), and he is busy popping pills, filling the room with smoke, and getting progressively inebriated, adding to the collection of empty vodka bottles around him.
Outside of the cabin there is no respite. The toilets are filthy with no running water and when Laura seeks a breath of air at the door, the stern and hostile conductor, Natalia (Julia Aug), is there like a prison guard. She does not seem to like anyone, least of all foreigners.
Laura seeks refuge in the dining car until that closes and she is forced to return to the cabin. Complaining to Natalia that she cannot sleep due to the miner’s drunken groans, she replies, ‘Do you think you have a choice?’ Welcome to Russia.
Lovesick Laura has tried in vain to call Irina and declare her love, but there is no reply. Laura has resolved to return to Moscow at the next stop but is getting the hint that Irina is not picking up the phone.
Gradually Ljoha grows curious about this sober, solitary foreigner who is always taking pictures with an expensive camera. The conversation is what you might expect between two strangers who never plan to see one another again. Ljoha tells Laura that mining is a means to an end as he is saving to open his own business – without providing details. He asks if Laura has a boyfriend, to which she replies ‘Yes, a professor of literature,’ and is more impressed with that answer than is Ljoha.
While Laura’s Russian seems very good, Ljoha knows little Finnish, and they play a translation game. She enacts a modicum of revenge for her sleepless night when she tells him that “haista vittu” means “I love you” when in fact it means, “f**k you.”
Compartment 6 cannot be called a two-hander because writers Livia Ulman and Andris Feldmanis enrich the journey with supporting characters, each having a specific role to play, particularly in Laura’s journey of self-discovery
When the train stops for a 24-hour layover, Ljoha invites Laura to visit a very special friend of his where they can sleep in real beds. Throwing caution to the wind, she decides to go, although Ljoha has been drinking and the car looks stolen. Kuosmanen creates suspense as Ljoha drives Laura along icy, dark roads to this unknown destination. He wants to alarm us, while craftily hinting how easy it is to form erroneous impressions based on prejudice and familiarity.
But from Natalia (who softens with familiarity) to Ljoha to Laura there are preconceived prejudices. Laura feels more comfortable with Saska (Tomi Alatalo), a Finnish musician who cannot afford a sleeper ticket than with Ljoha. Ljoha notices that she is hesitant to leave her belongings behind in the cabin when he is around, but feels comfortable inviting the guitar player to share the cabin.
Ljoha works in Murmansk, but has never heard of the petroglyphs, and is amazed that someone would be making such a long journey just for that. Laura justifies the expedition, having quoted a man who said, “to know yourself, you need to know your past.” But as the fragile relationship with the younger man develops, Laura grows uncertain about who she is and whether it is the past that can help her discover that. In the bleak, snow-covered tundra where the sun seldom shines, she becomes aware that life is what happens to us when we are making other plans.
With Compartment 6 Juho Kuosmanen shows his versatility. His previous film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, a sports biopic and love story set in Finland. In Compartment 6 Kuosmanen eschews the stock deadpan Nordic humour of that charming film and comes up with a more complex love story: one that refuses to define the relationship between its protagonists – and contains what might be the best closing shot of the year.