Based on a 2011 novel of the same name, Finnish film Compartment No 6 follows a young woman on an unusual journey, and like any traveler setting out into the world, she encounters much more than she bargained for. Seidi Haarla is Laura, a Finnish expatriate living in Moscow. We learn this in the film’s opening scenes, at a houseparty she’s attending with her girlfriend; it’s the same woman who, rather coldly, embarrasses Laura in front of their friends during a friendly but competitive game of “name that quote” from literature and the like. If Russian were your second language, you’d struggle too. But Laura is clearly smitten, letting Natalia (Yuliya Aug) get away with it if it means they leave the party together.
Cut to Laura on her own, this time boarding a train and settling into the compartment of the film’s title. She’s headed on a day’s long journey and is surprised to learn that her suite mate for the trip is a brash, outspoken Russian man named Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). Her girlfriend was supposed to join her, making this change of plans all the more unexpected. But the train attendant Laura checks in with is far from sympathetic and her fate, at least for the trip from Moscow to Murmansk—a far northern city close to the border with Finland—is sealed.
Filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen, working from a script adapted by him, Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, makes quick work of getting his audience oriented to Laura’s life, circumstances and state of mind. She’s packed a camcorder for the trip, intent on recording love letters to her girlfriend as she travels. But when she calls home during the train’s brief stops, Natalia is distracted and disengaged; there’s something very one-sided going on between them, to say the least. She’s headed to the port city to see 10,000-year-old petroglyphs (cave carvings), part of her studies and the reason she’s in Russia at all, meaning she’d not feeling terribly friendly towards Ljohan, who makes assumptions about this foreigner traveling to an obscure destination. All of this early set up works in the film’s favor, as the heart of Laura’s story is what happens on the journey, what she discovers about herself, her assumptions about the world and what kind of connections she’s seeking with other people.
At the center of the film is Laura and Ljohan’s unlikely relationship, one that starts off worse than rocky but soon becomes something unexpectedly sincere. Ljohan is a surly, macho miner, a guy who laughs at his own jokes and tells it like it is (even if you don’t want to hear it). He has zero tact and no filter, and Laura finds very little in him that’s endearing. But they’re stuck in a small train compartment together, and they begrudgingly begin to form something of a friendship. Ljohan’s feelings even get hurt when a Finnish man who can’t speak Russian shows up on the train and Laura brings him back to their compartment, helping him navigate his way to his destination.
The journey to Murmansk is arduous, filled with long stops at small towns along the way; at each one, Laura and Ljohan drift on and off the train, together and apart. By the time they reach their destination and go their separate ways, it’s almost a disappointment to think these two won’t cross paths again. But this is where Kuosmanen reveals the ace up his sleeve, as the film’s most moving moments come when Laura finds herself truly alone, adrift trying to find her way to the petroglyphs and to herself. Haarla balances Laura’s insecurities and strengths well, creating a woman who, though she may know a lot about many things, is nevertheless often at a loss for direction. And Borisov creates in Ljohan a man who’s often hard to like, even as his edges soften around Laura. As the two of them begin to let their boundaries down—walls long-since fortified by their lived experiences—the film’s final third really finds its footing, a warm and surprisingly moving rumination on how journeys of all kinds change us in unexpected ways.
Compartment No 6 is now playing in theaters.
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