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Strangers on a train share a bumpy ride in the Finnish film 'Compartment No. 6'

Seidi Haarla plays a Finnish archaeology student traveling by train through Russia in <em>Compartment No. 6.</em>
Sony Pictures Classics
Seidi Haarla plays a Finnish archaeology student traveling by train through Russia in Compartment No. 6.

Compartment No. 6 largely unfolds aboard a passenger train rattling its way through Russia sometime during the late '90s. But it feels like a throwback to an older tradition of railway movies, with their promise of transcontinental intrigue and fateful connections. It isn't a thriller like Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, or Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train. But there's a steady, thrumming tension to every scene, a sense that anything could go wrong at any moment. At times, Compartment No. 6 plays like a rougher, scruffier, less romantic version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise.

Certainly it's anything but love at first sight for Laura and Ljoha, the two passengers who find themselves lumped together for most of this journey. Laura, played by Seidi Haarla, is a Finnish archeology student who's been studying in Moscow. She's about to travel to the Arctic port city of Murmansk to see some recently discovered prehistoric rock paintings. Laura had been planning to take this trip with her girlfriend, but their passionate affair seems to be on its last legs, and Laura has decided to go it alone. Once aboard the train, she finds herself stuck in a second-class compartment with Ljoha, a rowdy Russian miner played by Yuriy Borisov. Ljoha's crude, drunken outbursts suggest that they're both in for a very bumpy ride.

Laura tries to steer clear of Ljoha and even requests a different compartment, but the train is fully booked, and no one seems eager to help her out. The camera follows the characters as they make their way through cramped corridors and dining cars; they're in motion and trapped at the same time. The atmosphere is overpowering: You can just about smell the booze and cigarette smoke, and you feel the desolate chill of this wintry landscape in your bones.

This is the second feature film written and directed by the Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen, who has a gift for illuminating the harsh realities of his characters' lives with a delicate touch. Before long, a spark of warmth ignites between these two reluctant companions. As Laura, Haarla doesn't say much, but even her silences are fiercely expressive; she's flinty and tough, with the natural guardedness of someone traveling alone through an unfamiliar country. As Ljoha, Borisov has a rascally charm that wears you down; beneath his exasperating rough edges, he can be a sensitive, even vulnerable soul. It's a pleasure to watch them relax in each other's presence and discover that they may have more in common than they first thought.

Much like the train itself, Compartment No. 6 barrels ahead in fits and starts. Along the way there are surprises and detours; at times Laura and Ljoha are able to leave the confinement of the train and explore their surroundings, which allows the story to breathe. Kuosmanen adapted the script from a 2011 novel by Rosa Liksom, which takes place in the 1980s during the final days of the Soviet Union. The movie is set roughly a decade later, as we can see from all the pre-digital gadgets: Cell phones are still a few years away, and Laura spends a lot of time listening to her Walkman and recording her travels on a camcorder.

There's real poignancy in those time-capsule details, which suggest that the movie is about the end of something: maybe the last gasp of an era when technology didn't completely rule our lives and it was easier to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler. Even still, there's something timeless about the journey that Kuosmanen takes us on. Compartment No. 6 may look modest, but it's transporting in every sense: It'll speak to anyone who ever wanted to board a train and escape — and to find an improbably perfect person to do it with.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.