Laura is a Finnish grad student who bids a reluctant goodbye to her Russian lover and boards a train headed for Murmansk in the remote Arctic circle to see the petroglyphs, a fitting farewell to her time spent studying in Russia. For the duration of the long ride, she’s been assigned to share a tiny sleeping compartment with Vadim, a rough and roguish man on his way to work in the mines. He makes a bad impression immediately and though Laura pleads to be reassigned, there are no other spaces available, and it’s Vadim or nothing. She wisely chooses nothing for as long as she can, but returns to compartment no. 6 when she can no longer fight sleep.
Juho Kuosmanen’s film is shot authentically on a series of Russian trains. You feel the claustrophobia, the inability to escape, the blurry landscape rushing by impassively outside the compartment’s window. Eventually loneliness and isolation win out, and Laura (Seidi Haarla) feeds her hunger for human connection by letting Vadim (Yuriy Borisov) in, little by little. They are not well matched, separated by class, nationality, and even language, but Vadim continues to surprise Laura, who stands in for the audience as she revises her assumptions and first impressions. Still, we fear for Laura, who seems vulnerable in her naivete, in travelling by herself such a long distance, so far from home.
I’ve heard this film compared to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category myself. I struggled with Compartment No. 6 because the introduction does such a good job of painting Vadim as an undesirable that I was totally convinced, and not nearly as ready to forgive as Laura. This is a general problem for me lately, my reluctance to accept vindication for a man I’m not sure deserves it. I feel Kuosmanen pushing us to challenge our implicit presumptions, but I don’t believe Vadim has truly earned redemption. His character starts out too abhorrent for me to believe in his transformation in just one train journey, no matter how endless it felt.
Of course, the beauty in film is that you may feel otherwise yourself (many do). Their time together being limited, perhaps you’ll be moved by their connection, impressive considering the limitations of the ride. Their inherent expiry date will either fill you with a sense of warmth and urgency, or leave you feeling that it’s all a bunch of nothing. And you wouldn’t be wrong either way. We are merely silent observers in this, and we’ll either find compassion for these two and their choices, or we’ll be left out in the cold wind of the Arctic circle.
Compartment Number 6 is an official selection of TIFF 2021.