COMPARTMENT NO. 6 – Review
Two strangers on a train, a young Finnish woman (Seidi Haarla) and a rough Russian miner (Yuriy Borisov), share a compartment on a two-day trip north from Moscow to the Arctic coast, in the surprising COMPARTMENT NO. 6. The trip is more than a physical journey, and this strangers on a train Finnish drama has won multiple well-deserved accolades since its release and is a leading contender for the Best International Film Oscar.
The film is set in Russia not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and although it is primarily drama, it has elements of humor and romance too. It actually starts, not on a train but at a party, in a spacious Moscow apartment, where a glittering mix of intellectuals and artsy types have gathered in bohemian hipness, led by charismatic hostess Irina (Dinara Drukarova), an academic at the Moscow university where Finnish student Laura (Seidi Haarla) is studying anthropology. Irina is also Laura’s lover, and the pair were supposed to embark on a trip to the Arctic together the next day, to see some ancient petroglyphs that Irina had been gushing about to Laura. At the last minute, something comes up and Irina can’t go, but she insists that Laura still go, alone.
COMPARTMENT NO. 6 is directed by Juho Kuosmanen, whose previous film THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI blended drama, self-discovery, humor and romance is a decidedly unique but deeply human way. Some of those same elements are here as well, taking this new film to a deeper, more profound level than we at first expect.
The two-day train trip is more than a physical journey, but a kind of journey of self-discovery for the characters. Without Irina, Laura feels untethered from her life in Moscow and is forced to reflect on her life’s direction and choices, who she is and what she wants. But those contemplations are interrupted by the obnoxious person assigned to the same compartment, a talkative young miner who is also traveling to the Arctic coast for work.
Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is rude and crude, and starts off with asking Laura if she is a prostitute. Clueless about her revulsion and unapologetic, he proceeds to hit on her while calling her Estonian instead of Finnish. Laura rebuffs him sharply, and with confident style, but she still retreats to the dining car for the rest of the day. When she asks the woman in charge of the train compartments to move her to another berth, the conductor refuses, claiming there is no room and cooling saying, with perfect Soviet bureaucratic indifference, “what did you expect.” Well, not that.
Laura is sharp-witted and able to stand up for herself but it hardly makes for pleasant traveling. She is relieved when a woman with a baby is also assigned to the compartment and later a young Finnish musician but neither stay long. Meanwhile, Ljoha keeps up his attempts to win over Laura, efforts that begin to hint at something more beneath the crude surface.
Over the course of the journey, both actors peel away layers of their characters. Although the whole story takes place on this journey, we are not always on the train and Laura has a surprising number of adventures and revelations along the way.
During the course of the trip, it becomes clear that Irina was more sending Laura away than it had seemed at first to the Finnish student, and Laura has to process that fact. Laura is completely enamored of Irina’s sparkling intellectual life, a life she really wants to possess. She wants to be Irina as much or more than she wants her as a lover.
The writing and acting are superb, with plentiful twists and nice performances by Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov, as their characters travel on their differing internal journeys and shared train-bound one. Creative photography by Jani-Petteri Passi, who also shot the fine multi-part HBO historical drama “Chernobyl” as well as the director’s previous film, brings a touch of mystery and the magical to the train trip, and provides support for the strong script and performances. The trip finds the travelers in an unexpected place in life when they arrive at their Arctic destination, and the film wrapped up in a poignant yet satisfying place for audiences.
COMPARTMENT NO. 6, in Russian and Finnish with English subtitles, opens Friday, March 18, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars