There’s a certain delight in seeing a movie completely cold, knowing nothing about it, except that it takes place on a train. I hadn’t heard anything about Compartment No. 6, so it was pleasing to have this character-driven drama slowly unfold in unexpected ways.
A Finnish woman, Laura (Seidi Haarla), is taking a several day train journey from Moscow to the Russian Arctic port city of Murmansk. She seems a bit of a lost soul, not really fitting in with the Moscow literati scene of her lover Irina, and maybe not fitting in with Irina herself. After all, Irina was supposed to come on this journey with her–Laura, in her study of archaeology, is on a quest to see some ancient petroglyphs in the remote port city. Her partner bailing on her seems sort of indicative of a relationship that doesn’t quite seem equal.
Checking into the titular train compartment number six, Laura finds that she is sharing the space with a boorish Russian miner named Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). The space is cramped, and with his shaved head, his cigarette ashes flying everywhere, and his collapsible drinking cup to accompany the full bottle of vodka he pulls out of his bag, he seems a classic lout. Laura keeps her distance, emotionally and literally, as she looks for a different place to sleep, or hangs out in the dining car.
Now, I had no idea where this was going. I didn’t even know the film is being advertised as a drama/romance. I was sharing Laura’s wariness at the potentially rapey vibe this guy sharing her close quarters was emitting. But this is where Compartment No. 6 slowly changes into something else entirely. We are seeing this guy as Laura sees him, so we are as surprised as she is when he turns out to be kind of interesting, kind of kind, and kind of crush-worthy.
As the film takes place in Russia of the 90s, I couldn’t help but relate it to my own experiences as a single woman traveler in the 90s in Europe. During my own travels, more than once I found myself sharing a train compartment with strangers, sometimes without a shared language. The movie portrays that weird bonding with strangers that seems unique to those who are travelling from point A to point B and beyond. Those connections, though fleeting, are often surprisingly emotionally intense. There is nothing to lose when you are, say, having a 9-hour conversation with a total stranger on a flight. I still remember some people that I connected with decades ago, and wonder what they are doing now. Compartment No. 6 has that same vibe.
It’s interesting that Compartment No. 6 was filmed during the pandemic, as it is a movie both about loneliness and connection. The last few years have been polarizing and isolating, so it is nice to see a film where the characters slowly chip away at initial stereotypes and surface impressions. Forging a simple, human connection is often difficult these days, and this film shows how sweetly rewarding and surprising it can be. If we call all make the effort to look deeper, the world may be a kinder place.