Laura is a young Finnish student living in Moscow. She has a beautiful Russian lover – Irina – with a beautiful (by Russian standards) apartment and a social circle of literary types whose party game is to identify quotes from famous authors. Laura’s knowledge of Russian language and literature is not up to their exacting standards, and when she mispronounces the name of the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova in response to one of Irina’s questions, she and the others laugh at Laura’s expense.
Was this a deliberate humiliation by Irina, a sign she’s going cool on her Finnish girlfriend? Neither we nor Laura are sure at this stage, but Irina next pulls out of a planned trip together to Murmansk to see the famous petroglyphs – rock carvings – in which Laura is supposedly interested.
So Laura heads off on her own on the train to the far north, in winter. She shares a 4-berth compartment with Lyokha, a crude Russian miner who behaves obnoxiously on the first night out from Moscow: getting drunk, smoking in the cabin, making a mess, asking prying questions, groping rudely at her and when faced with Laura’s understandable annoyance, suggesting she’s only going to that hole of a place to prostitute herself.
She tries to get another berth but can’t. She should have reported him to the Rosa Klebb-like female guard in my opinion, but that was the worst of him. He sleeps it off, sobers up, they start to talk, other people come and go from time to time and – long story short – they develop a connection.
Whatever Compartment No 6 is, it is not a collection of cliches. What springs up between Laura and Lyokha is not an ‘unexpected love affair’ or even an ‘unlikely friendship’. But what Compartment may lack in conventional tropes it makes up for in close social and character observation. What IS Lyokha? A potential thief or rapist, or just your typical Russian man working in a harsh deadend job who will die young from an excess of the alcohol he consumes to dull the sorrows of the daily grind?
And what of Laura? Is she really a budding academic? Maybe she has more in common with Lyokha than with Irina and her coterie of snobbish Muscovites.
Though it’s not spelt out, it’s clear from the cultural, musical and technological details that the story is set some time in the 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union but before the takeover by gangsters and the rise of the new tsar, Vladimir Putin.
Most of the action takes place on the train as it moves slowly through the bleak wintry Russian landscape. The cinematography and soundscaping here are powerfully evocative, especially at night: the lights of the last siding recede and dissolve into the enveloping darkness, a blizzard of snow blurs the cabin windows, the train’s heavy rolling stock grinds and grunts noisily onward.
As well as adding suspense and foreboding to the story, these elements serve to remind us how distinctively Russian culture and character have been shaped by the vastness of the land. They also say something about the almost mythically heroic role the railways have played in the national psyche in overcoming tyrannies of distance and climate that make the Indian Pacific look like a desert holiday.
I did 11 days on the Trans-Siberian in 1989. There were moments of recognition in Compartment No 6 that brought my experience vividly back to life, although I never would have been as daring as Laura in her choices of what to do during the scheduled stops!
This absorbing and memorable movie won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year. It was directed by a Finn, and the screenplay is based on a prize-winning novel by a Finnish woman, Rosa Liksom. (I suspect major autobiographical elements.) Most of the actors are Russian and there are many Russian names in the production credits. It’s described as an international co-production but it has, if I may say so, a Russian soul.