By Lynn Venhaus
In a world where so much is about timing, perhaps this isn’t an ideal time to watch “Compartment Number 6,” a rather bleak, dreary, and chilly film that lurches its way through a dour Russia.
As a train weaves its way up to the arctic port of Murmansk, two disparate strangers share a journey. An adventurous but shy, rather blank student Laura (Seidi Haarla) from Finland shares the long ride with a coarse but somewhat friendly and helpful Russian miner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov).
These two lonely people are in a cramped second-class sleeping car – he’s a crude laborer on his way to a job and she’s a fish-out-of-water, an archeology student (she says) from Finland who wants to see petroglyphs, which are ancient carvings on rocks. The pair look at each other warily, skeptically, disinterested.
Each with their own issues, the bottled-up pair engage in minimal conversation as they take smoke breaks. The people in this movie smoke a lot and drink a lot. In these drab quarters, she sketches and films the falling snow with a clunky video camera. He peels tangerines and drinks to excess. His boorish behavior is unsettling to her, but even reporting it doesn’t seem to matter.
Neither are who they appear to be, showing a public side different from their private life. Eventually, Ljoha tries to reach out, but his social skills are clumsy and awkward. However, he will help her and show out-of-his-way kindness that’s unexpected. She’s more reserved, guarded.
Writer-director Juho Kuosmanen wrote a screenplay “inspired” by Rosa Liksom’s 2021 novel, along with writer-actor Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ullman, setting it in the 1990s instead of the ‘80s, in a post-Soviet Union dismantling.
Finland’s short-listed entry for the Oscar Best International Film – but was not nominated, “Compartment No. 6” won the Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
It received much acclaim for its meditation on human connection – and it is aiming to be profound, deep, and enlightening. But ultimately is disappointing, with its ambiguous ending and lack of clearly defined characters. They oh-so-slowly reveal things about each other, but at this point, does it matter, as it certainly isn’t enough to engage.
The director appears to emulate Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” but this neither has the charm nor the sparkling conversation between Jesse and Celine – and there is zero chemistry, unlike Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Charitably, this 1 hour, 47-minute film unfolds at a glacial pace. Besides being incredibly slow, it did not have much to say. We are tasked with reading between the lines. The characters are thinly drawn and hard to warm up to – and the weather is brutal and demoralizing.
We’ve just been through a tough winter ourselves – and know the isolated feeling. As miserable as the train appears, the outside seems even gloomier. This isn’t exactly the Orient Express – although there is some mystery to different characters, particularly a fellow Finlandia guy who plays guitar and seems more sensitive than Ljoha.
Laura had been staying in a room in Moscow with an older Russian woman, Irina, a literature professor whose home is a gathering spot for artists and intellectuals every evening. That Irina (Dinara Drukarova) is charismatic. She’s a fun one, dancing, turning up the music, drinking and engaging in stimulating conversation – and the young one is drawn to her, practically idolizes her. Laura, here to study Russian, yearns to be a Bohemian, but also a sophisticate – and she’s pliable, ready to please. They are lovers but one senses the mercurial older woman isn’t going to commit.
But any move towards a romance here between the solo travelers wouldn’t be authentic – for now, anyway. There would have to be more developments.
Kousmanen is a fan of the Steadicam and its use becomes an aggravation, particularly after an evening of shots as they maneuver through the modest home of Ljoha’s foster mom. Lidia Kostina is terrific in dispensing hard-knocks wisdom.
The movie is assembled in fragments, with fits and starts that are frustrating, and the tone jumps throughout. The cinematography by C-P Passi is interesting, and a nostalgiac synth-pop score adds a nice touch.
“Compartment No. 6” needed more to be compelling. Somewhere inside, these characters are interesting – we just needed those inner selves to be outwardly displayed for better understanding of the point the filmmaker is trying to make.
“Compartment No. 6” is a 2021 international film drama from Finland, directed by Juho Kousmanen and starring Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov, Dinara Drukarova and Lidia Kostina. Rated R for language and some sexual references, its run time is 1 hour, 47 minutes. It opened in local theaters on March 18. Lynn’s Grade: C.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.