The Kursk submarine disaster is a prime example of government-sanctioned inefficiency and indecency. On August 12th, 2000, during a Russian naval exercise, a practice torpedo exploded aboard a nuclear-powered submersible, sending it careening toward the bottom of the Barents Sea. After the sub crashed, a second, larger explosion killed most of the men on board and sent the few survivors (23 in total) to one of the still-intact, though waterlogged and oxygen deficient, rear compartments. There they waited for a rescue that would, tragically, never come due to antiquated technology and the unyielding arrogance of Russian leaders.
Director Thomas Vinterberg, who most recently helmed 2016’s The Commune, and screenwriter Robert Rodat — best known for penning Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) — retell this heartrending story in Kursk. It’s a competent, by-the-numbers action melodrama, adapted from reporter Robert Moore’s 2002 book, A Time to Die, and featuring a Euro-pudding assemblage of Germans, Swedes, a Belgian and a Frenchwoman playing English-speaking Russians.
Not subpar, still middling.
A (presumably) more bankable, multiple-nationalities troupe is not a dealbreaker. This reviewer, for one, is quite fond of Kathryn Bigelow’s undervalued sub survival tale K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), in which Western performers (Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard) go hard-accented U.S.S.R. There, the conceit comes off as a thought-provoking, provocative engagement with Cold War-era ideological and cultural divides. Here, the cross-borders casting is a distraction that robs the tale of believable specificity and stakes.
Matthias Schoenaerts, who previously worked with Vinterberg on a lackluster adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd (2015), stars as Kursk shipman Mikhail Kalekov. (His character is likely based on Capt.-Lt. Dmitri Kolesnikov, who took charge of the surviving seamen and wrote two notes to people on the surface.) The early scenes set up Kalekov’s adoring relationship with his crew, as well as with his pregnant wife, Tanya (Lea Seydoux), and young son from whom he’ll soon be fatefully separated. Vinterberg and Rodat are clearly straining for Deer Hunter-esque verisimilitude in the way the characters relate bro- and ro-mantically, and in how a wedding sequence acts as a calm-before-the-storm palliative. A much-more-moving moment comes just before the men set sail, as Kalekov, heedless of the horrors to come, bops his head along to a rebroadcast of Metallica’s 1991 Moscow performance of “Enter Sandman.” Little does he realize he’s about to make history of a different sort.
Once the Kursk is on the ocean floor, Vinterberg, Rodat and the performers find stronger footing. How can you not milk suspense out of undersea claustrophobia or the perpetual fear of drowning/suffocation? A scene in which Kalekov and a colleague swim into one of the flooded cabins to search for oxygen cartridges comes close to attaining the queasy tension of the sequence in K-19 when the men must take turns repairing a reactor in a heavily irradiated space. Rodat’s Private Ryan bona fides, meanwhile, are evident in how the surviving crew and the worried spouses ashore build a compare-contrast camaraderie that, though very movie like in its reliance on morale-boosting jokes/songs and recurring objects such as a beloved watch that goes through several hands, still proves affecting.
There are nonetheless too many superfluous scenes that sap the below-surface tension, especially those featuring Toni Erdmann star Peter Simonischek as a Russian commander disgusted with his mandate to “do the impossible with the inadequate.” At least he’s not Colin Firth, playing a British navy chief whose primary purpose is to shoot vexed facial expressions at his Russian counterparts. The once and forever Mr. Darcy seems like he’s wearying his way through a vacation gone wrong.
One element of the production, at least, is above reproach — the cinematography by the exceedingly talented Anthony Dod Mantle. He gives the on-land scenes an unearthly glow halfway between idyllic and apocalyptic, as if sunlight could at any moment segue into a nuclear bloom (very appropriate given the story’s taut political undercurrents). And he’s equally adept within the confines of the Kursk, especially in that above-mentioned oxygen-cartridge-retrieval sequence, which mostly unfolds in a single, stomach-churning shot.
He makes an inspired choice, too, to film the opening and closing sections of the film in a boxy aspect ratio, only opening up to full widescreen while the Kursk is underwater. Yet even the expansive visuals have a profound sense of constriction, not only because of the harsh elements, but also the corrupt, craven powers-that-be trying to save face and stoke jingoistic loyalty. Mantle makes you feel, as Vinterberg and Rodat rarely do, how history and inhumanity weigh on those touched by misfortune.
Production Companies: Via Est, Belga productions
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Lea Seydoux, Colin Firth
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Producer: Ariel Zeitoun
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editing: Valdis Oskardottir, Sigurdur Eythorsson
Original score: Alexandre Desplat
Production designer: Thierry Flammand
Sound: Jan Deca, Jean-Paul Hurier, Guillaume Bouchateau
U.S. sales: Europa Corp
International sales: Europa Corp.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)