Some of the best—or at least the funniest—movies of all time were shot in whole or in part on a train. Think back to brief encounters, North for Northwest, Murder on the Orient Express, The station agent, and Before the sunset. Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s most entertaining films, The lady disappears and strangers on a train, suggest that trains are not just places of romantic encounters but danger zones.
Director Juho Kuosmanen is entertaining, cleverly unpredictable, and atmospheric compartment 6 makes the most of a train journey north, from Moscow to the arctic port of Murmansk on the Barents Sea. He provides us with everything we need for the trip: the necessary encounters, tension, danger zones, a few odd meals, and a frank tale of an enigmatic relationship that brings out the best in two driftings, lost souls.
Finnish archeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) visits her friend Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a literature professor in Moscow, but their long-distance relationship isn’t going well. Irina throws a party and pays more attention to her friends, and one in particular, than to Laura. Perhaps the romance will rekindle when they embark on their trip to Murmansk the next day.
During an uncomfortable night together, Irina apologizes and tells Laura she cannot accompany her to Murmansk. Laura hoped to combine work and pleasure by studying the famous Murmansk petroglyphs. Irina urges her to leave, claiming that the night train and the hotel in Murmansk are prepaid.
The train is about as far from the Orient Express as possible, in the tiny compartment where Irina should have been, a boorish young Russian miner returning to Murmansk for work. His name is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), and he is busy swallowing pills, filling the room with smoke, and getting increasingly intoxicated, increasing the collection of empty vodka bottles around him.
Outside the cabin, there is no respite. There is no running water, the toilets are dirty, and when Laura gasps at the door, the stern and hostile conductor Natalia (Julia Aug) is there like a correctional officer. She doesn’t seem to like anyone, least of all foreigners.
Laura takes refuge in the dining car until it closes, and she is forced to return to the cabin. When she complains to Natalia that she can’t sleep because of the miner’s drunken moans, she replies: “Do you think you have a choice?” Welcome to Russia.
Lovesick Laura has tried in vain to call Irina and confess her love to her, but there is no answer. Laura has planned to return to Moscow at the next stop but is told that Irina isn’t answering the phone.
Ljoha gradually becomes curious about this sober, lonely foreigner who always takes pictures with an expensive camera. The conversation is what you might expect between two strangers who plan never to see each other again. Ljoha tells Laura that mining is a means to an end as he is saving to start his own business – without giving details. He asks if Laura has a boyfriend, to which she replies, “Yes, literature professor,” and is more impressed by this answer than Ljoha.
While Laura’s Russian seems very good, Ljoha understands little Finnish and plays a translation game. She gets some revenge for her sleepless night when she tells him that “hasta vittu” means “I love you” when in fact, it means “F**k you.”
Compartment 6 cannot be called Zweihand, as writers, Livia Ulman and Andris Feldmanis enrich the journey with supporting characters, each with a specific role, particularly in Laura’s journey of self-discovery.
When the train stops for a 24-hour layover, Ljoha invites Laura to visit an extraordinary friend of his, where they can sleep in absolute beds. She throws a warning to the wind and decides to leave, even though Ljoha has been drinking and the car looks stolen. Kuosmanen creates suspense as Ljoha drives Laura down icy, dark roads to this unknown destination. He wants to alarm us while cunningly suggesting how easy it is to get false impressions from prejudice and familiarity.
But there are preconceived notions from Natalia (who softens with familiarity) to Ljoha to Laura. Laura feels more comfortable with Saska (Tomi Alatalo), a Finnish musician who can’t afford a sleeper ticket, than with Ljoha. Ljoha notes that she is reluctant to leave her stuff in the booth when he’s around but feels comfortable inviting the guitarist to share the booth.
Ljoha works in Murmansk but has never heard of the petroglyphs and is amazed that anyone would travel so long to see them. Laura justifies the expedition by quoting a man who said, “To know yourself, you must know your past.” But as the fragile relationship with the younger man develops, Laura becomes unsure of who she is and if the past can help to discover that. In the desolate, snow-covered tundra where the sun rarely shines, she realizes that life is what happens to us when we make other plans.
With compartment 6, Juho Kuosmanen shows his versatility. His previous film, The happiest day in the life of Olli Mäki, is a sports biopic and love story set in Finland. In Compartment 6, Kuosmanen eschews the deadly Nordic humor of this charming film and presents a more complex love story that refuses to define the relationship between its protagonists – and which perhaps contains the best ending of the year.
A train ride from hell changes the lives of two lost souls in this beautiful Finnish film.