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Compartment No.6 film review: Stripped down simplicity makes for a richer experience

·2-min read
Seida Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in Compartment No. 6
Seida Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in Compartment No. 6

Two strangers, on a train. Finnish archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) and boozy Russian miner Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) are sharing a shabby compartment from Moscow to Murmansk in Northwest Russia towards the end of the Nineties. At first it seems the pair have nothing in common, yet through several awkward encounters over a long, slow-moving journey, an unassuming love story begins to unwind. Juho Kuosmanen’s second feature, after his 2016 debut The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, is loosely based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom.

The immediate assumption upon hearing that synopsis is to compare Compartment No.6 to Before Sunrise (1995) - but there’s not a hint of Richard Linklater’s extravagant and idealistic romance to be seen in Kuosmanen’s muted but meaningful film. To even call this a love story at times feels like overreaching, with no obvious passion or particularly dramatic displays of affection; Kuosmanen instead portrays a unique but realistic kind of romantic love. Even at the climactic moments of the film there is no instant that feels remotely immoderate - and it’s this plainness and simplicity that provides much of the film’s beauty.

Compartment No.6 is exclusively shot (by JP Passi) on a handheld camera in 35mm, establishing a shaky authenticity that brings the subtle chaos of the film to life while highlighting the central pair’s clumsy yet charming romance. These performances too leave nothing to be desired; both Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov perfectly embody the inherent ordinariness of Laura and Ljoha. Haarla captures Laura’s insecurity and longing as she comes to terms with a failed relationship in Moscow, whilst Borisov embodies Ljoha’s boyish charm and spontaneity. The beauty of these candid performances is in their subtlety.

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov put in understated performances
Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov put in understated performances

The opening and closing credits of Compartment No. 6 are extremely misleading, with colourful, Wes Anderson-style title cards accompanied by vivacious Eighties pop music giving the impression of something altogether more energetic and upbeat. In fact, surprisingly, it’s the lack of a consistent score or soundtrack that adds to the film’s richness. You more viscerally experience not only the multitude of sounds and background noise, especially on the train, but also the awkward silences that fall between between Laura and Ljoha as they gradually grow to enjoy each other’s company. Overall, this total lack of ostentation adds rather than takes away from a charming story that successfully plays on our expectation of a modern romance.

Compartment No. 6 screened at the BFI London Film Festival

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