Compartment No. 6
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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Most passenger trains are not like the Acela. They are not luxurious, the journeys are longer, and most travelers turn their space into temporary living quarters. I remember being on an overnight train from Bucharest to Istanbul where a dairy farmer transformed his space into a makeshift market, selling different kinds of milk and cheese. Compartment Number 6, the new film from Finnish writer and director Juho Kuosmanen, similarly has no use for glamour. His two-hander has a bit in common with 1995’s Before Sunrise, a film where young strangers strike up a romance on a train, except the ghost of the Soviet Union looms large in Kuosmanen’s version. Compartment Number 6 is a provocative snapshot of Russia in the 1990s, and how two different people struggle to make sense of their lives in it.

When we meet Laura (Seidi Haarla), her life in Moscow is downright cosmopolitan. At a party thrown by Laura’s girlfriend, Irina (Dinara Drukarova), they hang out with intellectuals whose favorite party game involves taking turns guessing who said a famous quote. Laura does not quite fit in—Irina’s friends quietly judge their relationship—so it works out that she leaves for a short trip the following morning. Laura is bound for Murmansk, a city far north of Moscow, where she can view petroglyphs (thousands of years old stone drawings). The overnight train compartment is cozy, and instead of traveling with Irina who canceled, Laura finds herself sharing the compartment with Lyokha (Yuriy Borisov). He makes a terrible first impression: He is drunk and aggressive, to the point that Laura nearly abandons the trip altogether. But she decides to deal with him as best she can, and something happens that surprises them both. They start to like each other.

Kuosmanen fills his frame with perfect little details that add to the film’s sense of immersion. The train effectively becomes a hostel without a firm sense of privacy, and so there are regular micro-negotiations where other travelers assert themselves. When Laura leaves the train with her bag, which only lasts a moment, a young family attempts to work their way into the compartment. The family leaves without much fuss, but the implication is that everyone always looks for any advantage. The train car’s ticket taker (Yuliya Aug) is crucial to this feeling. She is gruff with Laura, barely concealing her contempt for the foreigner, although she becomes friendlier as their journey continues. Everyone has prejudices and defenses, which is another way of saying a lot has to happen before anyone trusts one another.

That constantly evolving sense of trust is what defines Laura and Lyokha’s relationship. They resist each other because they come from different backgrounds: she is educated and heads to Murmansk for cultural pursuits; he is a miner who looks for work wherever he can. Sometimes their impasse leads to moments of physical comedy, like when Laura watches a drunken Lyokha stumble through the snow in one of the train’s frequent stops. Unlike the aforementioned Before Sunrise, there is not much chemistry between these two, and if they do flirt, it is primarily out of boredom (the cinematography deepens that feeling, since the wan pools of fluorescent light are never flattering). Laura guards the details of her life, and it is easy to understand her reticence, but the film also carefully reveals how Lyokha has his own reasons to be defensive. Aside from the tedium of their journey, they do not have much in common, so part of the film’s charms is how—through a mix of desperation and curiosity—they develop more shared ground.

Such a delicate plot and sense of tone means that, without strong performances, the whole film would fall apart. Luckily, both Haarla and Borisov rise to the challenge. She strikes an interesting mix of defiance and vulnerability. It is hard to predict how and why Laura lets her guard down, leading to some scenes where the viewer might worry about her safety, but Haarla suggests that she can improvise her way through any tough situation. Borisov arguably has the more challenging role. He has no backstory and there is a persistent suggestion he behaves like an oafish Russian, so the actor has to find kindness and vulnerability while preserving that same exterior. How this happens is where Compartment No. 6 finds its deepest rewards: an extended denouement where Laura and Lyokha find themselves giddy with possibility and danger.

In scene after scene, Compartment Number 6 could have easily gone off the rails. Romance is a tough thing to find on a train like this, so instead Kuosmanen pushes the tension as far as it can, while still preserving some sense of camaraderie along with a palpable sense of time and place. That he actually pulls it off is a minor cinematic miracle.

Compartment Number 6 opens at E Street Cinema, Bethesda Row, and Angelika Mosaic on Feb. 18.