Cannes Review: ‘Compartment No. 6’

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If you’ve ever fancied taking the train from Moscow to the far northwestern Russian city of Murmansk above the Arctic Circle, Compartment No. 6 (Hytti No. 6) will almost certainly cure you of the urge. At the same time, Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s second film, which is about such a journey, offers up vivid emotional twists and turns that are charted with unusual acuity, qualities that will propel it to a modest but well noted life on the festival circuit.

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Kuosmanen won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section with his first feature, The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Maki, in 2016. His new film, which is in the Cannes Film Festival competition, is based on a novel by Rosa Liksom and plays as a simple tale that nonetheless requires astute control of nuance by the director, and equally sensitive modulations from the lead actors to pay off.

A lively farewell party marks the departure of Laura (Seidi Haarla) from Moscow after finishing her studies there. By the look of things, the young Finnish woman has had a fine time, although her departure will mark the end of her affair with her female professor.

A journey by train to somewhere near the top of the world might seem like an adventure to be coveted; it’s what Laura wants to do to cap her stay. What we see, however, might give all but the most hardy Lonely Planet devotees serious second thoughts. Awaiting Laura in her second-class compartment is a traveler from hell, a heavy drinking young skinhead named Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) who is about the last person you’d want to be stuck with in close quarters on a long journey to a rough destination. Changing quarters is not an option.

It’s here that the film begins to take off due to the two actors’ finely tuned performances. Given Ljoha’s boorishness, it seems unlikely that anything good can be expected of the guy, but Laura soon finds a way to disarm him, which encourages something resembling normal emotions to surface. Yes, he’s a big drinker, but also most likely something of a lost soul, and Laura, despite a couple of stumbles, finds a way of cutting through the jerky belligerence to find the troubled but genuine human soul hiding beneath it all.

Haarla has a certain chameleon-like quality that well complements her quicksilver emotional shifts; not a young woman who seems preoccupied with maximizing her physical appeal, she’s normally quite ordinary looking. But at certain moments, and often in concert with positive emotional shifts or improvements in Ljoha’s attitude, she suddenly looks more vibrant and attractive.

All of this helps the characters transition quite credibly from initial hostility and wariness to at least momentary connection and honesty. You can’t really say you begin rooting for them to become a couple, but the emotional movement over the course of their time together (it’s unclear exactly how long the train trip lasts, especially due to some long stops along way) is considerable, subtle and credible.

They finally do arrive in Murmansk, which in itself is worth the price of admission just to see what this utterly remote city of about 300,000 people looks like. But it’s safe to say that the film won’t start a tourist stampede.

Director Kuosmanen and cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi get the camera into very tight quarters with impressive agility and it has the feel of a film that will stick in the mind.

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