COMPARTMENT NO. 6 (Hytti Nro 6)

Producers: Jussi Rantamäki and Emilia Haukka   Director: Juho Kuosmanen    Screenplay: Andris Feldmanis, Livia Ulman and Juho Kuosmanen   Cast: Seidi Haarla, Yuriy Borisov, Dinara Drukarova, Julia Aug, Lidia Kostina, Tomi Alatalo, Viktor Chuprov, Denis Pyanov and Polina Aug   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B

A not-so-brief encounter, the sharing of a cramped compartment on a slow-moving train, leads to understanding and even affection between two initially antagonistic people in Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s second film, not so much adapted from Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel as inspired by it.  The book is set in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the film after its fall sometime in the nineties.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish girl studying Russian and archaeology in Moscow, where she’s moved in with her professor Irina (Dinara Drukarova), a sophisticated intellectual whose exciting life she hopes to share and whose love she craves.  The two planned a trip together to the city of Murmansk, in the country’s far northwest, to see ancient petroglyphs found outside the city.  At the last minute Irina could not go, so Laura went alone, carrying her video camera with tapes of her time in Moscow for comfort. 

Boarding the train, she finds that she’ll be sharing a compartment with Ljoha (Yuri Borisov), a loutish, drunken boor travelling to Murmansk for a mining job.  Laura finds him so obnoxious that she looks for somewhere else to sleep, but the officious conductor (Julia Aug) tells her there is no other option, so after trying third class she reluctantly returns.

Over the first leg of the journey. Interrupted by brief stops at frigid towns, Laura and Ljoha are barely civil to one another.  He rants about the greatness of Russia and receives her explanation of the petroglyphs with dismissive contempt.  She responds to his query about how to say goodbye in Finnish with an obscenity he takes for the answer.  And when she encounters a pleasant, guitar-strumming Finnish guy (Tomi Alatalo) without a place to sleep on the train, she invites him to her compartment, much to Ljoha’s irritation.

But, of course, the ice between them melts, to the point that when the train has an overnight stop, she accepts his invitation to join him in a visit to his foster mother (Lidia Kostina), she reluctantly accepts, only to find herself bonding with the straight-talking, hard-drinking, jovial old woman.  By the time they reach Murmansk, their parting is vaguely regretful.

And the film doesn’t end there.  When Laura inquires about tours to the petroglyphs, she’s told the site is inaccessible during the winter, and when she tries to hire a cab to take her there anyway, the driver summarily refuses.  But Ljoha is not about to allow her to be disappointed, making for a final act that provides some excitement along with a bittersweet ending.

This is a romantic comedy, in a way, but very different from the Hollywood kind—shrewd, subtle, and gently touching rather than bluntly crowd-pleasing.  The performances are winning even when the characters act in coarse or mean ways, and the changes we witness happen gradually instead of in explosive bursts of passion. 

One also has to praise the naturalistic ambience.  The greater portion of the film was shot on an actual moving train, and Kuosmanen and his team—production designer Kari Kankaanpää, costumer Jaanus Vahtra, sound designer Pietu Korhonen and cinematographer J-P Passi—capture the cramped atmosphere and oppressive noises with considerable finesse, while the soundtrack features a well-chosen selection of pop songs  In the final segment in Murmansk and beyond, things become more visually expansive, reflecting not only the outdoors but  the emotional opening up of Laura and Ljoha as well.

“Compartment No. 6” doesn’t aim for profound insights; it’s content with a modest, observational approach, and is all the more engaging for it.  It’s capped off with a nifty joke, too.