Despite the bone-chilling cold of its location in Murmansk in Russia’s remote north-west, there’s a wonderful human warmth and humour in this offbeat romantic story of strangers on a train. It comes from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, whose 2016 film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki was a lovely comedy about a real-life Finnish boxing champ in the 1960s.
His new film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Finnish artist and author Rosa Liksom, and concerns a young Finnish student of archaeology, Natalia (Yuliya Aug) who is in Moscow sometime in the early 90s; she has begun an impulsive affair with her professor, Irina (Dirana Drukarova). Under Irina’s tutelage, with her encouragement, and perhaps because this older woman does not care to have Natalia hanging around much longer, Natalia has resolved to make the tough rail journey up to Murmansk where she wants to view the petroglyphs there – mysterious rock drawings, thousands of years old.
Sweet-natured, open-hearted Natalia gets on this uncomfortable train in the freezing wintry cold, where she finds that she must share compartment number 6 with Vadim (Yuriy Borisov), a boorish, drunk young guy who is on his way to get a job in a coal mine in Murmansk and is openly abusive, misogynistic and philistine about Natalia’s plans. And her phone calls back to Moscow reveal that Irina isn’t exactly pining for her.
Of course, it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that after their meet-uncute, the relationship of Vadim and Natalia is going to thaw. The romance that flowers between these two young people is in parallel with the romance of a long rail journey, and this is a very non-American equivalent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise movies. Vadim’s scowling face and shaven, bullet head make him look a tough guy at first, but it isn’t long before we see him as a vulnerable little boy, never more so than when with Natalia welcomes another Finnish guy to share their carriage – a self-admiringly sensitive type who insists on singing and playing his guitar. Vadim is fiercely sceptical and resentful of this preening interloper, and he is right to be.
In the end, no one wants to help Natalia find these petroglyphs that she has set her heart on and travelled so far to see, and it is Vadim himself who has to step up; there is charm and gentleness in this scene and the movie as a whole.