In August 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk suffered two devastating explosion during a test firing of torpedoes. Many of the crew were killed in the explosions, but as the wrecked sub sank to the seabed, 23 of the crew were trapped alive in one of the vessel’s remaining compartments.
Thomas Vinterberg’s retelling of the tragedy of the Kursk aims to be both as a disaster movie, and a document of the gross incompetence of the Russian navy whose reluctance to accept international help resulted in many unnecessary deaths. While Kursk doesn’t have the sufficient depth required for a truly effective historical drama it certainly works as a well-mounted and occasionally gripping, if somewhat formulaic thriller.
Matthias Schoenaerts plays Mikhail Kalekov, the most senior surviving officer aboard the doomed submarine, while his increasingly frantic wife, Tanya (Léa Seydoux) anxiously waits at home. Seydoux is good in a fairly thankless role, drawing strength from the wives of the other stranded men. It’s here that the film makes its broader social points – their neighbourhood is a wasteland of Soviet-era tower blocks, overgrown paths and poverty.
Tanya and her friends are initially patient with the naval command, but after the apathetic press-conference bullshit coming from former President Boris Yeltsin (Max von Sydow), they finally lose their tempers, forcing the authorities to reconsider the offer of assistance coming from the Royal Navy. Incidentally, von Sydow might look nothing like the late Russian premier, but it is always a treat to see him pop up in small roles such as this.
Meanwhile, Vinterberg puts his stranded crew through the ringer, throwing one problem at them after another. After the initial accident, Kalekov and his men need to generate oxygen, but the necessary cartridges for the machine are stored in the adjacent, flooded compartment. The ensuing set piece, with Schoenaerts swimming past the bodies of his comrades to get to the life-giving cartridges, is Kursk’s stand-out sequence. We’re not really in any doubt that he will make it, but we’re holding our breath with him all the same.
The claustrophobic brilliance of these scenes is undermined a little by the film’s frequent journeys back to the surface, which though also effective, illustrates Kursk’s main flaw – it doesn’t always know what kind of film it wants to be. An early directorial touch, with the frame’s aspect ratio expanding as the Kursk makes its way out to sea, gives a momentary thrill, but adds little to either its affect as a thriller or to the meaning of its broader political themes.
Ably supporting the main cast is Colin Firth as British Naval Officer David Russell, aghast at the dithering and sub par resources of the Russian navy while their own men languish below. The ending, too, doesn’t pull its punches, and may even surprise those not already familiar with the real story.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell