It is hard to watch a film about two strangers who are en route to a new city and not think about Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy that starred Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Other films about short-lived relationships will also come up such as Brief Encounter or Lost in Translation. These types of stories are almost in a genre of their own. The new film Compartment No. 6 shows that this genre of romance has plenty of variations. The film is insightful, tough-minded, and big-hearted.
Director and co-screenwriter Juho Kuosmanen finds numerous ways to explore solo travel and the unexpected connections one can make. Adapted from the 2011 Rosa Liksom novel, Compartment No. 6 follows Laura, a Finnish archeology student who is traveling to the port city of Murmansk to see some recently discovered petroglyphs. Laura was originally supposed to go with her girlfriend Irina. Irina, who treats Laura more as a fling than Laura wishes, decides to stay, blaming work. Early scenes with them together suggest that their relationship is on the rocks. Irina's reasoning for not going feels like an excuse loaded with emotional baggage.
Laura finds herself traveling and sharing a sleeping compartment with Russian miner Ljoha. On the first day, he gets very drunk and makes a crude move at her. He seems to assume that she is going up north to turn tricks, While this initial interaction is off-putting, Ljoha never seems like a danger to Laura. She brushes him off easily. Despite a few efforts, she ends up stuck with him for the duration of her travels.
As the film goes on, the two begin to get to know each other in a very natural and non-judgemental way. The characters often reveal multitudes about themselves in throw-off lines of dialogue. As we get to know them both, we see how they are both lonely and hurt. At one point a friendly Finnish man joins them. He appears to be more virtuous than Ljoha but reveals himself to be a thief. For all his rough external qualities, we know Ljoha would never do that. Compartment No. 6's big strength is how it takes us along on the same journey as Laura, tracking our change of heart towards Ljoha alongside Laura's.
The film blends natural humor with human connection drama wonderfully. The cramped spaces the film takes place in are filled with details that paint a larger picture outside of the train. Laura, over time, is revealed to be lost in what she wants from life. She elevates her toxic relationship in Moscow before realizing that it is fleeting and likely over. The messiness of her situation is rich and rewarding.
The performances are also rewarding. Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov have wonderful chemistry together. Both bring so much to the inner lives of these characters. Haarla as Laura is particularly moving as she comes to a realization of what happiness might be. Borisov is more convincing as the tender character he becomes than the rough brute he starts out as.
Compartment No. 6 is a small wonder, rich in character details and sly observations on travel and loneliness.