Deborah Ross

Will put you in mind of Lost in Translation: Compartment No. 6 reviewed

This initially unpromising character-as-plot film develops into a smart, nuanced (sort of) love story

Will put you in mind of Lost in Translation: Compartment No. 6 reviewed
First-rate: Seidi Haarla as Laura in Compartment No. 6. Credit: ©2021 Sami Kuokkanen Aamu Film Company
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Compartment No. 6

15, Key Cities

Compartment No. 6 is set aboard a long train journey across Russia, a country we don’t hear much of these days (I wish!). It has won multiple awards, including the Grand Prix at Cannes, and is by the Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen, who has said of his films: ‘Basically, they are boring.’ It’s true, this is not eventful, even if the restaurant car does run out of hot food at one point. This is a character-as-plot film and if that isn’t your style it is going to feel like a very long journey indeed. The trip is from Moscow to Murmansk, which is way up north. It is days long and you may even feel it in real time. (But I didn’t, just to be clear.)

The film, which was first released last July, is set in 1998, a year before Putin came to power, so recent events don’t come into play. But they can’t help but inform how we watch. First we are introduced to Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish archaeology student who is living in Moscow and having an affair with her professor, Irina. The two were planning to journey to Murmansk together to see the petroglyphs (rock paintings) dating back to the stone age (I went down a rabbit hole looking them up; astonishing). But then Irina drops out and encourages Laura to go on her own.

However, on boarding the train Laura is dismayed to find that she is to share compartment no. 6 with a bullet-headed, tough-looking, chain-smoking, vodka-glugging Russian man, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), who is already drunk and grabs at her crotch. This is no way to say ‘hello’ to a lady. (It’s also no way to treat someone from a neighbouring country who is vulnerable, you may well be thinking, given current events.)

Laura is understandably repelled and desperately seeks another compartment but they’re all full and the train conductress is unsympathetic. (She cares about one thing only: ‘no spitting on the floor’.) So they’re in it together and initially it doesn’t seem promising. Not for them, and not for us. There’s no way this pair are going to connect. He grabbed at her crotch! He’s awful! But this is a smart, nuanced film with a narrative that develops into a (sort of) love story over the two hours.

It was actually filmed on an old train rented from the Russian transport authority, going round and round in circles, but the vastness of the landscape is somehow captured in a way that intensifies the claustrophobia and forced intimacy of the compartment. We learn a little about the main characters but not much. Ljoha is on his way to work in the Murmansk mines. Laura’s phone calls to Irina from various stops tell us that Irina is not invested in their affair. They smoke, they eat, they sleep, they joke, they drink. The restaurant car runs out of hot food. He becomes protective. She is alerted to a goodness within him. Their enmity starts to fade in a way that seems absolutely true to character. While you recognise they’ll never be credible as a romantic couple, you understand the bond that develops. No one knows where they are, or cares, and their togetherness is all that keeps them from being alone.

The film will most put you in mind of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, when she was still quite interesting.

The performances are first-rate. The actors take what they need but otherwise depend on the truth of the characters. Some may find the ending unsatisfying as it’s one that says (I think) that the journey is more important than the destination, which isn’t something I’d say to the lorry drivers stuck at Dover. But Ljoha does attain redemption, which is hopeful, and the journey didn’t seem days long to me. It seemed worthwhile.