The charms of Compartment Number 6 keep growing the closer we travel to the Arctic Circle and the more the weather turns bitterly freezing (and we’re talking inaccessible roads, passing trains causing snow drifts to cover cars and winds like cheese graters). This seductive second film from Juho Kuosmanen, the director of 2016’s black-and-white boxing pic The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, sees a Finnish woman, Laura (Seidi Haarla), who’s at the fag end of a relationship with an older woman in Moscow, take a train alone to the arse end of frozen nowhere. Ostensibly, she’s off to see some ancient stone carvings, although this archaeology student doesn’t seem massively enthusiastic about her specialist form of tourism and is still chewing over what she’s left behind.
Before she leaves Moscow, Laura clearly feels on the edge of her lover’s cliquey friendship group and their in-the-know literary chat (one of them describes her to another as ‘the lodger’; in the next scene we see Laura in bed with her ‘landlady’). It’s time to reassess things. Once she’s on the train (and this is the sort of train trip that takes days not hours), Laura’s sleeper cabin companion, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), is the stuff of nightmares, especially for a woman travelling alone. A miner off to seek work in Murmansk, the same place Laura is also heading (to see those rocks), he’s drunk, aggressive and unpredictable, so much so that Laura hangs around other bits of the train just to avoid him. ‘All humans should be killed,’ he declares at one point. What a find.
It’s only after Laura has a sour on-train experience with a fellow Finn – a man superficially more trustworthy and more polished – that she and Ljoha begin to thaw in each other’s presence. An understanding begins to emerge, however unspoken, that they might both benefit from seeing the world a little differently. It’s part road movie, part opposites-attract sort-of-romance, part a portrait of Russia in the early post-Soviet days. The period details and atmosphere have an immersive feel, from the babushkas we see through the lens of the treasured video camera Laura carries with her everywhere and the gruff female train guard to the unforgiving landscapes of the north and the bottles of moonshine that some friendly townsfolk give her to drink en route.
A lot of the story beats are familiar from other similar tales: the need to hit the road to rediscover oneself; the surly stranger who offers more than you first imagine; the journey being the point not the destination. But the performances, the writing and the direction all conspire to make it feel fresh and specific, and as bleak as the settings may be, it has a delicious black comic streak and shares the buzz of personal re-awakening without ever feeling obvious or cheap. It turns out to be a beacon of warmth amid a frozen wasteland.