Kursk review: A couple of years ago, we saw Thomas Vinterberg’s last film The Commune at the Berlin Film Festival and absolutely fell in love with it. His latest is completely different, though still has themes of family and loss, this time centering on the K-141 Kursk submarine disaster in the year 2000.

Kursk review

Kursk review [TIFF]

Russia. Summer. We open to a young family living next to the ocean – a working town that relies on the sea for a large majority of its income – whether that be fishing, or the navy, which is where we find Matthias Schoenaerts’ Mikhail, his pregnant wife Tanya (Lea Seydoux) and their three-year-old son. Richard Rodat’s script uses a wedding to introduce the majority of the other navy men, one of their own finally tying the knot the day before they are due on board the submarine Kursk for an exercise. It’s a great plot device to show the unity amongst the men, but it’s not long before we witness it again on board the fated vessel.

Shortly into its journey to the depths of the Barents Sea, an accident involving a reported 6-7 of the missiles onboard, leaves the Kursk stranded 150 meters-plus under the surface, the surviving members of the team – led by Mikhail, short on oxygen and reduced to using just one of the sub’s compartments – the only one not completely flooded.

It takes authorities, who are alerted to the disaster, over 16 hours to locate the submarine – sub’s emergency rescue buoy had been intentionally disabled – and when they do finally get there, there are issues in latching on securely to the escape hatch on top of the Kursk. There’s Colin Firth, here playing a British navy commodore, who throws his own hat into the ring to help, but there are political pressures led by Boris Yeltsin (Max von Sydow) who are stalling in accepting the aid, mother Russia worried about losing face and spilling secrets. The film charts this in great detail, as well as spending considerable time the sailors on board and their worried families back home as the ‘rescue’ continues to be delayed.

Related: First Man review [TIFF]

If you’re unaware of the true events on which Vinderberg’s film is based, keep it that way – at least until you’ve seen the film. I knew nothing about what happened and was utterly engrosses as a result. Vinterberg has employed an almost square aspect ratio to the film – he only expands the screen to widescreen when the sub is submerged. It’s a trick used many times before, but rarely as effectively as here.

The dialogue is in English – again another thing that usually irritates when the choice is made to change from the native tongue. This is probably more of a commercial decision rather than anything else, and the fact that the cast of the film is very diverse, Schoenaerts from Belgium, Seydoux from France and other members of the Kursk crew played by actors from all over Europe. Firth speaks eloquently with his native British drawl and is superb in the supporting part which turns into a much bigger role than expected. Schoenaerts is a stand-out, the climax giving evidence of his amazing talent. He’s rarely given time to shine, particularly in mainstream fare, but he is here. Seydoux plays the worried wife at home, pregnant with child and, as with Claire Foy in the other big true-life story playing here at TIFF, First Man, nearly steals the show from underneath the other talent. She’s exceptional.

Kursk is a difficult watch and truly intense in places, but it is masterful work with some exceptional cinematography from Oscar-winner Anthony Dot Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), and some dynamic editing from Valdís Óskarsdóttir, who in 2004 cut Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Add in a bold score from Alexandre Desplat and you’ve got a film package that is an absolute winner. Exceptional.

Kursk review by Paul Heath, September 2018.

Kursk was reviewed at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for all of our coverage.

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Kursk