From Moscow to Murmansk, this emotional relationship film barrels down the railroad tracks, harrowing in its isolated cabin fever intensity. A young Finnish woman leaves her life to go look at some petroglyphs drawn on some old rocks. That’s what she studies in University. She’s looking for other things, too, but just doesn’t know that yet. We’re well ahead of her, dear viewers. She arrives on the train and finds her unsightly cabin mate: a drunken Russian man, absolutely sloshed, on his way back to his work-life. She is going and he is coming home. Their journey, under the pressure chamber of their small cabin, with only two beds and a table, plays with heightened intensity of emotion. The film is a small but feeling piece about moving forward and moving on.
It almost always works. Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen sets the table. He and his cinematographer, J-P Passi, have worked together for twenty years and have a close, earned intimacy in their work. It is a requirement here. The tight corridors in the train, and main setting of a small claustrophobic cabin, mean that every direction of the audience’s attention must be precise. While aboard the train, the film is always up to that, and keeps the simmering emotional pot boiler always on the stove. When we depart from the train, at stops along the way and in the final destination, the film cools with arctic blues and open spaces, where there are more possibilities. The characters can always leave and go somewhere else but sometimes they are brought together anyway. The train ride isn’t the only journey they share.
Laura (Seidi Haarla) just needs the right outlet. She dreams of rocks and drawings and making small movies for her partner back home. But Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is a loutish, disruptive force. Her life is upended by their shared polar passage. Ljoha grows on her, of course, that is the only possible point of his being there. Borisov plays his abrasive Russian with vigor. His every vein is about to burst. Sometimes he plays it too hot but the performance is usually correctly sized. Haarla plays Laura with the same sort of potency. While his presence is physical, hers is inwardly powerful, and self-contained. Our time spent with them is uncomfortable, and then it is bittersweet, and then it is just sweet. The properly considered romantic arc.
Compartment No. 6 is a loose adaptation of a novel by Finnish writer Rosa Liksom. It moves the setting from Soviet Union to present Russia and as a result, urges the time period into the ’90s. The film also liberally invents and lends its own inventions to the story. As the project grew, its creators became more comfortable going off script. That’s what good creators do, continue to impart more of themselves and their own story, and retain the edges of an already good but already told story.
The film has had doubly bad timing, with COVID and present conflicts making it a difficult sell, after very strong early festival performance (it won the second most prestigious award at Cannes last year), and now the release window feels shaky at best. The film is good and you should see it anyway.