It would be an understatement to say that neither a train setting, nor an odd-couple romance are new devices when it comes to creating a narrative platform. They are terrains as well-traversed as the Trans-Siberian railway. And yet, much like the art of comedy lies in how a joke is told rather than the punchline itself, director Juho Kuosmanen has taken Rosa Liksom’s source novel and made the familiar feel fresh in Compartment No. 6. 

The result is a rich, warm-hearted drama that deserves every ounce of praise that has fallen its way – not to mention the Grand Prix prize it shared at Cannes with Asghar Farhadi for his drama, A Hero. 

Events centre around shy Finnish archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) currently living in Moscow with her professor-turned-partner, Irina. They have plans to travel to Murmansk to observe the newly discovered Kanozero petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings). The arrangement is scuppered, however, when the flighty Irina opts to remain in Moscow, leaving Laura to set out solo. Any hope for a peaceful train voyage is extinguished by a parade of ill-suited compartment buddies, culminating in Ljoha (Yuri Borisov). Uncouth and unrefined, this crude miner is also on his way to Murmansk for work. As their train hurtles into ever-colder climes, relations between the seemingly incongruous pair slowly heat up, and they discover that sometimes first impressions can be particularly misleading.

Lead actor Seidi Haarla (Laura) and director Juho Kuosmanen sat down to discuss the evolution of their film – the challenges they faced in tackling the core details of the source novel, and how audiences’ pre-defined ideas of narrative can be detrimental to the viewing experience.

Compartment No. 6 (2021)

Had you read Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel long before considering it for adaptation? 

Juho Kuosmanen: I read it 10 years ago when it was published. Immediately, I was interested in adapting it, but there are so many bad novel adaptations that I doubted it would work. Then, time passed, and I was on a very long train journey across Russia while making a TV documentary. I recalled the novel and read it again. When Rosa Liksom told me I didn’t have to copy her book and I could do what I wanted, it gave me the courage to start writing it.

What changes did you implement for the screenplay?

JK: Quite a lot. The book covers different time periods. There are childhood memories, and there are lots of moments from Laura’s time in Moscow. The train journey travels from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. And the novel ends in the desert. 

The biggest change was to leave out those different time layers and change the journey to Moscow to Murmansk. We also changed the decade – it is no longer 80s Soviet Union but the late 90s. Also, the age of characters. In the book, Laura is much younger, and the male character is much older. 

What made you change the ages of the protagonists? 

JK: With film, we can have a predefined idea of narratives because of what we’ve seen before, and those ideas can be quite narrow. The fact that these two characters are in a closed space, and feature a young, 22-year-old woman and a guy around 50 years old… we don’t have many narratives in our head. You easily start to think, ‘is he going to rape her?’ There’s a threat of violence hanging in the air that you don’t have in a book because your experience is freer on the page. 

Seidi Haarla: In the book, the first time Laura sees Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is through the train window, and he is accompanied by a woman around the same age. They are parting on the platform, and she has a black eye. It’s obvious that Laura’s thought would be: “please do not come into this cabin. I don’t want to see you ever!” We see violence all the time by men towards women in what we read and watch, so it’s quite a boring starting point repeating that narrative. 

JK: It also narrows expectations when watching the film. If you are expecting something that the film is not going to deliver, then you are not seeing the whole film. 

There are shades of Lost in Translation in the increasingly emotionally frosty calls between Laura and her lover as time progresses, the ambiguous conclusion, the language barrier, and the odd-couple element… 

JK: Lost in Translation was a film that we thought about when we were writing, because the connection was more of a friendship than a romantic love story. Also, like Lost in Translation, not much happens but, at the same time, it is full of things.

Compartment No. 6 (2021)

Seidi, you worked on the script with Juho. How did that evolve?

SH: The biggest compliment Juho paid me on our first meeting was that this film would need my input. That’s the biggest compliment you can pay an actor: “I don’t want to simply move you around like an object, but I would like to think with you”. I got to read every version Juho and the scriptwriters wrote, and we would talk about what felt right and what didn’t, what we would change, and so on.

JK: So much happens between the main leads that if there was nothing between them and the emotions were not properly conveyed, then authenticity would be lost. The chemistry needed to be real even though the situations were acted.

SH: It’s easier when you establish trust and there is a commitment to undertaking a project together. It becomes more creative and open. You can start building a pyramid from there.

JK: Exactly. That’s why it’s important to find people like Seidi, Yuriy, or trusted producers. Film is something that happens beyond words. It’s crucial that you find people that understand the needs [of the film] without lots of explanation. Because, when you need to use words to explain the script or behaviour, things can become very simple and generic. 

The film is set before mobile phones and the social media age. Do you think there was something more romantic about that time? Or does nostalgia fool us into believing it to have been so? 

JK: I think it was more romantic but there is some nostalgia too. In this case, I think we couldn’t have had smartphones. Not just because they are ugly, but they are destroying this kind of journey and the need for other people. It’s a totally different thing to go and ask help from another person rather than going to Google to find an answer. 

There are several paradoxes throughout the film: the warmth of the love story contrasting with the coldness of the environment, and the noise of the carriages duelling Laura’s desire for solitude, peace and quiet. 

JK: Yes. Contrasts are the biggest tool for storytelling, because if you need to find peace, you cannot start from having peace. If you are seeking light, you must start with darkness. In Compartment No. 6, it starts with a lack of personal space. Even when Laura is in the big apartment at the beginning, her personal space is so tight. 

She also seems to be overwhelmed at the outset by her partner, Irina’s, personality and somewhat suffocated by it.

JK: Yes, and the biggest challenge for her in the beginning is that she doesn’t feel accepted. Her personal perception is that everyone else is so much better: wiser, cooler and more beautiful. Even though there is someone there who loves her, she finds it difficult to let that love in. 

Winning the Grand Prix prize at Cannes and sharing it with Asghar Farhadi for his film A Hero must have been a proud moment. What was the experience like?

JK: That evening was amazing. When we were invited to the closing ceremony, we knew we were going to receive some sort of award. I was quite sure that Seidi would get the best actress award because Yuriy was already back in Russia and was not called back. But when that was given away and the only prize left was the Grand Prix, expectations went higher and higher and then… they crashed. They announced Asghar Farhadi!

SH: We were like, “okay, this was a big mistake!” The audience were still applauding Farhadi when Maggie Gyllenhaal stood up and said, “Sorry, actually, this prize is shared with Compartment No. 6!” 

JK: It was a great moment! To share a prize with a director that you really appreciate, that possibly means even more than winning. Because film is sharing. And to share that moment with a filmmaker you’ve been following and admiring for a long time is very special. 

Compartment No. 6 is in cinemas from 7 April.