If TikTok celeb Francis Bourgeois has taught us anything, it’s that trains can be exciting. Cinema shares that sentiment, with memorable classics including Brief Encounter and Strangers On A Train giving the everyday form of transport a sense of romance.
Juho Kuosmanen’s drama Compartment No 6 may not have the same sweeping sentiment, but it does produce a big story from a confined space Set in Russia, it follows Finnish student Laura (Seidi Haarla), who studies archaeology in Moscow.
Laura boards a train to Murmansk, to see newly discovered cave paintings, with a heavy heart, her professor-cum-lover Irina having pulled out of the trip at the last minute. Worse still, she finds herself sharing a cabin with Lyokha (Yuri Borisov), an uncouth, hard drinking Russian miner.
Initially repelled by each other, their long journey spawns a friendship that helps both people at a crossroads in their life. It isn’t the best time to release a movie set in Russia, although I’m sure the film’s PR department would like me to remind you that this is a pan-European production, written and directed by a Finnish filmmaker.
From this uncomfortable location, however, comes a human story of transition. If this was Hollywood and the setting was LA, Laura would either fall in love with Lyokha or be stalked by him. Happily, this adaptation of Rosa Liksom’s novel is content with keeping things in greyish reality.
The pair do not come close to walking off into the sunset, but instead find some connection through their fractured lives. It’s led by two wonderful performances that are both believable and compelling. Borisov could have alienated the audience with his abrupt, intimidating opening scene, but slowly loosens the tight coils of toxic masculinity to reveal something more fragile.
As Laura, Haarla is both trapped and in control. She is put on guard by Lyokha’s initial aggression, but appears to console herself with the quiet knowledge that she is mentally a step ahead. Her pain is told in silence, as well, with calls made at a phonebooth (the story is set in the 90s) punctuated with pregnant pauses that suggest she isn’t returning to Irina.
Chugging along nicely toward its open-ended destination, Compartment No 6 is an offbeat story of friendship that does things its own way.