Director – Juho Kuosmanen – 2021 – Finland – Cert. 15 – 107m
A student taking a long, sleeper train from Moscow to the Arctic finds herself sharing a compartment with a drunken male slob – out in cinemas on Friday, April 8th
Finnish archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) lives in Moscow with her life of the party, professor lover Irina (Dinara Druckerova) in the latter’s Moscow flat where life is a constant round of social gatherings and parties. Irina’s busy schedule causes her to drop out of a proposed visit to Murmansk to see the petroglyphs, so Laura takes the Artika train (Artic train) alone and finds herself sharing her first class, two person sleeper cabin with Lhoja (Yuriy Borisov from Petrov’s Flu, Kirill Serebrennikov, 2021) who knocks back the vodka and leaves half-eaten packets of food all over the shared table. She takes an immediate dislike to him.
And that’s the setup of the film: not so much a road movie as a rail movie, the bulk of what follows taking place on the train (a fascinating location in itself) with off-train episodes at various stops en route including St. Petersburg (which places the year at 1991 or after when the city was renamed from Leningrad) and a finale in Murmansk.
Laura misses Irina, but when she gets to a payphone (this is set prior to mobile phones) to call, it quickly becomes apparent that in Laura’s brief absence Irina has surrounded herself with friends and possibly at least one other lover. After this, the narrative effectively loses interest in Irina to concentrate instead on the two compartment occupants. Laura tries to find ways to avoid Lhoja, but the restaurant car closes overnight and the surly lady train conductor (Julia Aug) tells her there are no other spaces on the train for her to sleep. So Laura is stuck with Lhoja and must make the best of it.
As the journey progresses and he tries to be friendly, these two unlikely fellow travellers are forced to spend time together and gradually come to appreciate each other’s better qualities. Episodes on the train include him surprising her behind a door after she thinks she’s managed to evade him and a period where she lets a guitar-playing Finn, who lacks a berth and is only travelling a small section of the journey, stay in their cabin. When the train is stopped in a station, she watches Lhoja punch snowballs and get told off for trespassing on the railway line.
At one point, she leaves the train and follows a dog to find bottles of booze pressed into her arms by generous locals. At another, Lhoja takes her to meet his friend Natalia (Yuliya Aug from The Student, Kirill Serebrennikov, 2016) at her home for an evening of serious drinking and conversation, at the end of which Natalia admonishes Laura that “you’ve got a good one there.” Lhoja turns out to have hidden talents – like temporarily stealing and hot-wiring cars to get around cities he’s briefly visiting – and his abilities as a fixer ultimately prove invaluable when Laura arrives in Murmansk only to discover that the petroglyphs’ location is apparently inaccessible due to road closures from the harsh Winter weather conditions.
The whole thing is hugely enjoyable thanks to a clever script based around its two central chalk and cheese characters who are memorably brought to life by the two very different leads set against the compelling background of the Artika train and its passenger accommodation arrangements. DirectorKuosmanen keeps everything moving along nicely, both on the train journey itself and through the various off- or post-train episodes. Like Laura, forced to travel with a different companion from the one she’d originally intended, this is a journey you might be unsure about taking in the first place, but once you’ve been on board for a while, you’ll be very glad you did.
Compartment No. 6 is out in cinemas on Friday, April 8th.
BFI London Film Festival 2021