Juho Kuosmanen‘s Compartment No. 6 (co-winner of the Cannes Grand Prix prize) is an understated yet compelling tale of compassion and mutual understanding. Essentially a road movie, it becomes a wryly observed and intimate character study that breaks down differences of class, nationality, and language.
Compartment No. 6 takes place in a single confined space, a shared compartment on a long train ride north through Russia to the remote city of Murmansk in the Arctic circle. The filmmaker ingeniously builds up and then breaks down the vast gap between his characters. Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish grad student on a quest to find ancient rock paintings while Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is a Russian miner travelling to work while polishing off bottles of vodka as he goes. They sit on opposite sides of the compartment and the camera remains tightly focused on each as if to further separate them.
The film opens up as Laura and Ljoha begin to bond. It takes on a more generous and empathetic view as secondary characters begin to pop in and out of the narrative. Perhaps the most telling incident is when, during one of the train’s long stop overs, Laura wanders down a lane in the isolated countryside. She encounters some scary looking men who turn out to be friendly and generous, insisting that she take a bottle of vodka as a gift.
Compartment No. 6 is a profound character study that evolves in time into something of a romantic drama. The smart ending ensures that we come away more than that. The film’s light comedic touches lift it from the familiar and generate a refreshing message about humanity. Kuosmanen elevates a simple road movie into a pathway extending towards empathy and understanding.