AP – A train ride from Moscow to the arctic port city of Murmansk would not seem like the most likely setting for anything as warm as Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No 6.
To Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish archaeology student who’s reluctantly left behind her friend and her studies in Moscow to visit prehistoric rock drawings in northwest Russia, the journey doesn’t start promising, either. When she goes to set her bags down in her overnight, second-class compartment, she finds a boorish Russian miner, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), who aggressively guesses she’s headed north. The conductor offers no reprieve, not even for a bribe.
For those of us weened on the romance of the rails in films like The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Vanishes, Laura’s predicament feels more like the post-apocalyptic dread of Snowpiercer. At the first stop, Laura hops off with her luggage to find a pay phone and call her friend, Irina (Dirana Drukarova), with the idea of taking the next train back to Moscow.
But Irina, who had originally intended to accompany Laura, sounds relieved to be free of her. When Irina asks if she’s at least got some good company in her compartment, the already insecure Laura – sensing their friendship is ending – can only slump further, and mope back to the train.
But as Compartment No 6, a prize-winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and Finland’s shortlisted Oscar submission, rattles gently across a frigid, wintery Russia, an unlikely alchemy begins to form between Laura and Llosa. As low as their starting point is, we sense where Kuosmanen might be headed when Llosa asks for the Finnish translations of a few phrases, and she supplies an expletive in place of “I love you”.
Yet the detailed textures and claustrophobic sense of place – and the terrifically genuine performances of Haarla and Borisov – ensure that Compartment No 6 never feels artificial or pre-programmed. Much of that has to do with how adeptly it conjures a past where such an encounter – and such desolate disconnection – was possible.