Compartment No. 6 – movie review

In Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, the journey counts, not the destination.

The film opens in Moscow in 1996. Laura (Seide Haarla) is a Finnish archaeology student in her 30s staying with Irina (Dinara Drukarova) in a beautiful flat. The pair are also lovers. Irina has forged a good life, full of friends, parties, laughter and intelligent conversation. She has convinced Laura to go and see 10,000 year old rock paintings in the Arctic. They intend to travel together, but work holds Irina back. So Laura decides to go it alone. That means a long train trip, with many stops along the way.

Laura has booked a second-class compartment and her bunkmate on her journey to Murmansk is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a miner almost a decade younger. He immediately makes a bad impression and before long seems like a pig of a man – uncouth and a drunk. Laura does all she can to put him behind her. She hangs about outside the compartment. She tries to switch carriages. She leaves the train, not intending to return, at one of the stops.  She calls Irina, but can’t bring herself to explain her situation. In any case, she doesn’t receive the reception she wants from Irina. Now she’s stuck. So it is that the relationship between the rough mine worker and the more cultured student evolves.

Compartment No. 6 is a slow moving film that works its way into your psyche. Based on a novel by Finnish writer Rosa Liksom, it has a strong ring of truth about it, even though it’s also quirky. The script by Livia Ulman and Andris Feldmanis, and direction from Kuosmanen is solid throughout. It’s a story about discovery … about not judging a book by its cover. Laura and Ljoha both grow through their shared experience.

Apart from the compelling writing and the “breathing room” Kuosmanen injects into the piece, the naturalistic performances distinguish Compartment No 6. In that, my praise extends beyond Haarla and Borisov – one empathetic and the other hard-nosed – who are very convincing. Drukarova is fun loving, passionate and flighty as Irina. Yuliya Aug is appropriately humourless as the “by the book” ticket conductor. Lidia Kostina is engaging company as Ljoha’s foster mother.

In the end, Compartment No. 6 is a melancholic drama (with some romantic elements) that bites. An independent movie for selective tastes, it won the Grand Prix and Ecumenical Jury prizes at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Alex First

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