Review: ‘Compartment No. 6,’ starring Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov

February 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6”

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen

Russian and Finnish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia in the 1980s, the dramatic film “Compartment No. 6” features a cast of an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Finnish woman and a Russian man meet on a train when they’re forced to share the same compartment, and they have conflicts when he attempts to get close to her in sometimes crude and off-putting ways. 

Culture Audience: “Compartment No. 6” will appeal primarily to people interested in European films about seemingly mismatched people who have to travel together under awkward circumstances.

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6” avoids a lot of movie stereotypes about two strangers who meet on a train. It’s not a thriller or a comedy, but it’s a realistic, wandering drama about human connections that develop in spite of friction. This isn’t the type of movie that will appeal to people who are expecting wacky or extreme things to happen. However, for viewers who appreciate thoughtful observations of individual personalities and how strangers get to know each other, “Compartment No. 6” offers an engaging ride.

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen, “Compartment No. 6” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Grand Prix and a special mention for the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Kuosmanen and Andris Feldmanis wrote the movie’s screenplay, which is adapted from Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel of the same name. “Compartment No. 6” is the type of artsy European film that tends to be well-received at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s not a movie that’s too pretentious, because it’s about two “ordinary people,” but viewers should not expect the type of overly contrived scenarios that often plague stories about two strangers stuck on a long trip together. There’s good acting all-around, but how much people will enjoy this movie will depend mainly on if they’re interested in watching the dynamics of two people who spend a lot of awkward moments together during much of the movie. The ending of “Compartment No. 6” is a “full circle” moment that viewers will appreciate for how it shows that first impressions can be lasting impressions that yield unexpected results.

“Compartment No. 6,” which takes place in Russia, is told from the perspective of a Finnish woman in her late 20s or early 30s named Laura (played by Seidi Haarla), who has been temporarily living with her Russian lover Irina Mezhinskaya (played by Dinara Drukarova), who is in the closet about her sexuality. The movie opens with a house party at Irina’s place, where host Irina is the jovial center of attention. Laura is introduced to people at the party as Irina’s “friend,” and they dance together like friends. But when Irina and Laura have a moment alone together in the bedroom during the party, they kiss each other passionately.

The movie gives no details of how long Laura and Irina have been together, but it doesn’t appear to be very long. Laura is not a Russian citizen, and she doesn’t appear to have a job. Irina, who’s about five to seven years older than Irina, has an unnamed job that has given her an income to afford a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. This living situation appears to be making Laura a little uncomfortable because she doesn’t want to be considered a “freeloader.” Laura also seems to be more willing than Irina to go public with their relationship.

“Compartment No. 6” does not specify the decade in which this story takes place. And the movie’s costume design and hairstyling aren’t overt indications either. But there are enough clues to show that the movie takes place in the 1980s. Laura listens to music on a Sony Walkman-type of cassette player. No one has cell phones. No one talks about the Internet. And on her trip, Laura makes video messages for Irina on a cassette-using video camera.

The day after this house party, Laura (who says she wants to be an archeology student) and Irina had planned to take a trip by train to the Murmansk, Russia, to look at the famous petroglyphs there. Laura has very much been looking forward this trip, which she wanted to be a romantic getaway. However, Irna backed out of the trip on short notice because of unexpected work obligations. Laura seems to be more upset about this change of plans than Irina is.

Because archeology enthusiast Laura still wants to see the petroglyphs, she decides to take the trip by herself, with the encouragement of Irina. And so, that’s how Laura ends up on a train in the second-class section’s Compartment No. 6, where she meets the passenger who’s sharing the compartment with her. He’s a crude Russian miner named Ljoha (played by Yuriy Borisov), who is close to the same age as Laura is. Ljoha is drunk and verbally aggressive to Laura during the first time that they meet.

Underneath his coarse attitude, Ljoha obviously is attracted to Laura. She can sense it too, but she makes it clear to him that she’s not interested in him for romance or friendship. She tries to avoid talking to him, but he keeps pestering her with questions. Some of his interrogation includes asking her, “What are you doing on this train alone? Selling your cunt?”

When he finds out that she’s Finnish, Ljoha demands that Laura teach him a few words in Finnish, such as “hello,” “goodbye” and “blizzard.” When Ljoha asks Laura to tell him how to say, “I love you” in Finnish and write it down for him, she writes down these words in Finnish instead: “Fuck you.” Ljoha has no idea, of course.

Ljoha eventually gets physically aggressive with Laura. It makes her so uncomfortable, Laura tries to see if she can switch compartments, but the rest of the compartments are full. Because she has a second-class ticket, she can’t go in the first-class section. Laura even tries to bribe the train ticket taker named Natalia (played by Yuliya Aug) to let her go to another compartment by explaining the problem, but Natalia is unmoved.

There’s no getting around it: Laura is stuck on the train with Ljoha for about three days. Over time, she finds out that Ljoha is going to Murmansk for a job at Olenegorsk GOK, a mining and processing combine. Along the way, some hijinks ensue, but they’re not as exciting as they would be if the movie had been a Hollywood version of the story.

One thing that becomes obvious is that Ljoha is so attracted to Laura, he gets a little jealous when other strangers on the train catch her attention and she starts having friendly conversations with them. Laura tries to keep an emotional distance from Ljoha, but Ljoha has an impish charm that she eventually gets involved with in a way that starts out as cautious, but then she lets more of her guard down when she’s with Ljoha. The movie shows if Laura eventually tells Ljoha that she’s romantically involved with another woman.

Because of the meandering tone of “Compartment No. 6,” there will be times when viewers will wonder where the story is going and what’s the point of having certain scenes in the movie. There are some scenes that go nowhere, but they are just meant to be “slice of life” scenes. Since it’s already established that Laura isn’t romantically interested in Ljoha, this isn’t a “will they or won’t they get together” cliché that would usually be in a romantic movie.

In addition to the authentic-sounding dialogue, one of the reasons why “Compartment No. 6” is a better-than-average film is that all of the actors are entirely believable in their roles. Laura’s well-justified initial repulsion of Ljoha then gives way to curiosity and then an understanding that she’s a lot more like Ljoha than she would care to admit to anyone. Ljoha (who drifts from job to job) and Laura are both lost souls who don’t really have a permanent home at this point in time. You won’t learn much about Ljoha’s and Laura’s backgrounds before they met each other, because that’s the point: They both have rootless existences.

When Ljoha isn’t drunk, he even shows a little bit of a tender and compassionate side of himself to Laura. He isn’t quite the jerk that she initially thought he was, and she isn’t quite the uptight snob that he initially thought she was. The connection between Laura and Ljoha is an example of how when there’s an opportunity to get to know someone outside of one’s comfort zone (even if it’s unavoidable because you’re sharing a train compartment), it’s an opportunity that can result in some insightful surprises about the other person and about yourself.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Compartment No. 6” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2022. The movie was released in Russia and other parts of Europe in 2021.

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