Back in the early 1990s, while covering the filming of the bizarre Russian-backed, Ukraine-set horror movie Dark Waters, I spent 17 hours on a midnight train from Moscow to Odesa. To this day I can still vividly recall the noise, smell and claustrophobia of that journey, crammed into a damp, four-bunk berth with tiny corridors whose windows were sealed shut, leading to toilets that were best avoided. All those memories came rushing back as I watched Compartment No 6, a 1990s-set drama in which a young woman boards a Moscow train heading the other way – up towards the port city of Murmansk. The film’s trajectory may be north rather than south, and the timescale far longer than my trip, but the expression on Finnish actor Seidi Haarla’s face as she enters the titular compartment had that same mix of horror and resignation that I remember so well.
Haarla plays Laura, a Finnish student who has been living in Moscow with Irina (Dinara Drukarova), an academic with whom she has fallen in love. Together, they booked a trip to see the Kanozero petroglyphs, ancient rock drawings that date back to the third millennium BC. But Irina’s schedule changed and she encouraged Laura to go alone, leaving her to share a sleeper cabin not with her lover but a stranger, Russian miner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov).
Laura and Ljoha are chalk and cheese, almost caricatured representatives of their respective nations. He is gruff, often drunk and aggressively impolite, asking if she is going to Murmansk to work as a prostitute. She is aloof, looking down disapprovingly from the top bunk as he fills the cabin with his booze and cigarette smoke. At first it seems that their confinement may lead to some form of violence – that one of them might not make it to their destination. But as the journey progresses, a form of social perestroika starts to occur. Gradually they find common ground beneath the alien surfaces as the cold war between them begins to thaw.
Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, who made the melancholy boxing romance The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, has described Compartment No 6 (which is loosely adapted from a novel by Rosa Liksom) as “an Arctic road movie that takes place in a train”. Shot largely within the confines of a real Russian train, the film brilliantly captures the authentic air of its setting, placing the audience right there in that strange liminal space between stasis and motion, an environment that strikes a chord with both its central characters.
Despite her declaration that she longs to be back in Irina’s bohemian apartment in Moscow, flashbacks to Laura’s life there show her as a fish out of water. Increasingly, it becomes clear that she only embarked on this gruelling cross-country trip in an attempt to fit in with her lover’s life. As for Ljoha, beneath his brash exterior lurks a painful recognition that Laura can only be his companion – for better or worse – for the duration of this journey.
Alongside David Lean’s British classic Brief Encounter and Wolfgang Petersen’s German masterpiece Das Boot, Kuosmanen cites Karim Aïnouz’s 2019 sisterly love story The Invisible Life of Eurídice Guasmão and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation as key influences. I also saw deadpan echoes of Jim Jarmusch’s US indie road movie Stranger Than Paradise, in which Richard Edson’s Eddie famously remarked: “It’s funny – you come to someplace new and everything looks just the same.” While Compartment No 6 may take place on the other side of the world, its bittersweet conclusion is similar; wherever you go, it’s not the arrival but the journey that matters.
Beautifully believable performances from Haarla and Borisov add emotional weight, rivalling the nuanced naturalistic charm of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. As for any wider message, the film’s central theme of overcoming otherness and finding common ground across personal, cultural and geographical borders seems like a balm for the soul in these tumultuous times.