Compartment No. 6
This charming and thoughtful strangers-on-a-train romance follows a Finnish student and Russian miner en route from Moscow to Murmansk.
November 10, 2022
Handheld camerawork can be a gimmick. It can be distracting, too. When imagery seems restless for no particular reason other than making the audience restless, it drags down entire films. But at its best, roving, jittery and jumpy frames provide one of the clearest windows there is into the souls that inhabit the silver screen in 90-minute blocks or so, and also prove a wonderful way of conveying how they feel in the world. That's how Compartment No. 6's cinematography plays, and it couldn't be a more crucial move; this is a deeply thoughtful movie about two people who are genuinely restless themselves, after all. Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki) wants what all of the most perceptive filmmakers do — to ensure his viewers feel like they know his characters as well as they know themselves — and in his latest cinematic delight, he knows how to get it.
How Kuosmanen evokes that sense of intimacy and understanding visually is just one of Compartment No. 6's highlights, but it's worthy of a train full of praise. With the helmer's returning director of photography Jani-Petteri Passi behind the lens, the film gets close to Finnish student Laura (Seidi Haarla, Force of Habit) and Russian miner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov, The Red Ghost). It peers intently but unobtrusively their way, like an attentive lifelong friend. It jostles gently with the locomotive that the movie's central pair meets on, and where they spend the bulk of their time together. It ebbs and flows like it's breathing with them. It rarely ventures far from their faces in such cramped, stark, 90s-era Russian surroundings, lingering with them, carefully observing them, and genuinely spying how they react and cope in big and small moments alike. Pivotally — and at every moment as well — it truly sees its key duo.
With their almost-matching names, Laura and Ljoha meet on a train ride charting the lengthy expanse from Moscow to Murmansk. She's taking the journey to see the Kanozero petroglyphs, ancient rock drawings that date back the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC, and were only discovered in 1997; he's heading up for work. Laura is also meant to be travelling with Irina (Dinara Drukarova, The Bureau), her Russian girlfriend, but the latter opted out suddenly after an intellectual-filled house party where mocking the former for her accent — and claiming she's just a lodger — threw a pall of awkwardness over their relationship. Making the jaunt solo is still sitting uneasily with Laura, though. Calls along the way, answered with busy indifference, don't help. And neither does finding herself sharing compartment number six, obviously, with the tough- and rough-around-the edges Ljoha.
It's been 71 years now since Alfred Hitchcock gave cinema the noir thriller Strangers on a Train. It's been 27 years since Richard Linklater also had two unacquainted folks meeting while riding the rails in Before Sunrise, which started a terrific romance trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Accordingly, the idea behind Compartment No. 6 is instantly familiar. Here, two strangers meet on a train, a connection sparks and drama ensues. Kuosmanen, who nabbed an award at Cannes for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki and then earned the 2021 competition Grand Prix, which comes second only to the prestigious Palme d'Or, for this, is clearly working with a well-used setup. But even though this isn't a movie that's big on surprises, it's still a stellar film. It's also a reminder that a feature that's personal and raw, also attuned to all the tiny details of life in its performances, mood and style, and firmly character-driven, can make even the most recognisable narrative feel new.
Laura and Ljoha are a chalk-and-cheese pair. He gets drunk almost instantly; is crude and rude to his unimpressed fellow compartment dweller from the get-go; and his hunched, agitated, me-against-the-world posture seethes with boorish anger. But the duo are also virtually trapped in close confines — wandering the train's corridors and using its bathrooms are hardly escapes, even for a few minutes, on a trip that takes several days. They're both lost, lonely and yearning, too, in their own fashions but also in a more similar manner than they each initially expect. So, they rub each other the wrong way at first, then settle into chilly animosity, then begin to thaw. Schnapps plays a part, as does the dining car. Pitstops along the way, stolen possessions and language trickery do as well. Needing love and companionship, even just fleetingly, has the biggest influence.
Kuosmanen cowrote Compartment No. 6's screenplay with Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, co-scribes themselves on Estonian TV show Kättemaksukontor — and adapts Rosa Liksom's novel of the same name. In the process, the director and his collaborators move the story by around a decade from the end of the USSR to the end of Boris Yeltsin's time in power. That means that Laura and Ljoha follow in Before Sunrise's Celine and Jesse's footsteps by mere years on-screen (Titanic gets a mention, helping anchor the movie in time), but they're always roaming and locomoting through their own film. Compartment No. 6 is that lived in, that astutely drawn and that naturalistically played, as aided immensely by its meticulous production design. Just as the handheld camera places viewers in the characters' headspace with precision, the immaculate like-you're-there touches that fill every frame are equally as immersive.
It's easy to see Hollywood wanting to hop on Compartment No. 6's tracks, riding its way to an English-language remake. If that happens — probably more like when — good luck to whoever's behind it in repeating such casting perfection. All of the expertly and expressively deployed cinematography in the world, or even just across a 35-hour-plus trip to the top of Russia, can't bond an audience to fictional characters if they don't already feel so real that you could be them; the latter springs from extraordinary performances, of course, which Kuosmanen guides out of Haarla and Borisov. In their time together, Laura and Ljoha shift, ruminate and open up, including to themselves. That's a delicate journey, as relatable as it is, and also immensely complex to portray with emotional resonance, honesty and nuance. Compartment No. 6's untethered imagery sees that. It revels in it. That's what two strangers on a train enjoying an unexpected bond en route do with each other's company, eventually — and, again, this unconventional love story has everyone watching share the same sensation.
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