AFI FEST 2021 REVIEW! Compartment No. 6, written by Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman, and director Juho Kuosmanen, tells the story of Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish grad student who embarks on a several-day train trip from Moscow to Murmansk alone after her Russian girlfriend Irina backs out. She’s put into the titular compartment with the crass, drunken, and messy Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), who is on his way to work for a mining operation. While the two can barely speak to each other at first, they get into various misadventures that allow them each to come to some understanding.
Ljoha won’t let Laura sleep, and in their first interaction, accuses her of being a prostitute as he tries to grope her. She flees but ultimately finds she has nowhere else to go. She reluctantly goes back but barely speaks to her train mate. But, when Laura is harassed while making a phone call, Ljoha comes to her defense. She accepts a ride from him in a car he has just stolen on the way to see an elderly friend. Ljoha may be simple, but it turns out he’s kind-hearted and resourceful. When she can’t manage to get things done, somehow he can find a way.
Compartment No. 6 is more Before Sunrise than a Hitchcock crime thriller, but even that is an imperfect comparison. Linklater’s classic is more of a straight romance, with the characters starting with an interest in each other and having somewhat philosophical conversations about a wide variety of subjects. This film is a bit more nuanced, and the characters are from such stunningly different backgrounds, they initially do more miscommunicating than communicating.
“…a several day train trip from Moscow to Murmansk alone after her Russian girlfriend Irina backs out.”
The art and production design is about what you’d expect from a movie filmed on Russian trains: bleak and claustrophobic. Still, it does serve the source material, Rosa Liksom’s novel, well. They may be moving through a frozen wasteland, but buried deep down inside the people is where you’ll find warmth.
Kuosmanen excels in telling a story that seems entirely believable and realistic. The plot of Compartment No. 6 never feels forced or predictable. The actors are equally talented. I had to keep reminding myself that Borisov is just an actor playing a part and surely not a boorish lush in real life. Haarla also excels at communicating a subtle form of heartbreak and undersold loneliness. She seems tough, but she has a barely hidden vulnerability.
The downside is that the narrative is fairly straightforward. It isn’t a complicated political allegory, nor are there huge surprises, leaving little room for unpredictability. Still, there’s plenty to like.
While Compartment No. 6 is incredibly specific in its details, its themes give it broad appeal. One is not to judge people too quickly, whether it is by class or education. Another is that there’s humanity in everyone if we’re willing to take the time to find it. These may sound cheesy, but that’s not the way it comes across in the film. As we all know, in movies, as in travel, it is all about the journey, not the destination.
Compartment No. 6 screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2021 AFI Fest.
"…in movies, as in travel, it is all about the journey, not the destination."
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