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Compartment No 6 is an offbeat twist on the road-trip romance

Actor Seidi Haarla discusses her role in the new Compartment No 6: a Finnish love story that won the Grand Prix at Cannes

Seidi Haarla hasn’t seen Before Sunrise, even though her new film keeps getting compared to it. “I should watch it,” the Finnish actor murmurs as if it’s a professional duty. But upon learning of the plot, she cackles with laughter. Richard Linklater’s 1995 movie, I explain, is the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy: Ethan Hawke seduces a sophisticated woman on a train, simply by pontificating at length. Haarla shakes her head in disbelief. “I’m not interested in doing those films where a woman has to listen to a man talk,” she says. “Of course, in our film, there’s barely any talk at all.”

Haarla is referring to the warm, witty Compartment No 6, a Finnish drama directed by Juho Kuosmanen (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki). In 2021, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes – effectively the festival’s award for second place – with a premise not entirely unlike Before Sunrise. Haarla plays Laura, a Finnish archaeology student who leaves her girlfriend to board a train from Moscow to Murmansk. Sharing Laura’s carriage is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a Russian miner with whom she forms an esoteric kinship. However, their fragmented dialogue is as bumpy as the rail track: he cannot verbalise his feelings, let alone espouse Linklater-esque one-liners about literature and philosophy. “It doesn’t have to be one person talking and the other one listening,” Haarla says. “You can communicate in other ways.”

Haarla, 38, is a veteran actor with barely any IMDb credits. Before Compartment No 6, she was known for performing in plays in Finland, many of which she wrote herself. At Curzon’s office during the London Film Festival, she tells me, with a shrug, “Camera-work wasn’t something I was familiar with. But I think all acting is the same. It depends on the people you work with. And there are many aspects that you can only learn through life, that you only learn by living.”

Likewise, Laura’s train journey is for educational purposes. Not so much to glimpse the Kanozero Petroglyphs in Murmansk, which was why she purchased the tickets, but to learn about herself. As a solo adventurer, Laura deliberately sets herself up for encounters with strangers: first Ljoha is a nuisance, then they discover some mutual interests. After all, Laura’s academic passion for rock formations is really a middle-class version of Ljoha’s job as a miner. Tellingly, Kuosmanen cast both actors because he believed they looked like brother and sister.

“I felt from the first meeting with Yuriy that I felt safe with him,” Haarla recalls. “I felt quite quickly that we shared some kind of inner energy and curiosity, and that we could share moments of expressing emotions physically.” Although Haarla did punch-up on the dialogue, she emphasises how much was communicated through body gestures. “We didn’t have much common language together. Yuriy’s English wasn’t that good, and my Russian wasn’t that good. He’s from Moscow and speaks his own way. But when you’re lacking words, you still need to go on.”

In person, Haarla takes her time delivering answers; she pauses sometimes for five seconds between sentences, then will stress certain words like “fuck” for comedic effect. The pleasure of Compartment No 6 is that it’s similarly unhurried, chugging along without an obvious three-act structure. The truth is, the story is tightly plotted and Laura’s literal journey generates its own momentum. As Kuosmanen shot the delicate drama on a real, moving train, the viewer also observes these two characters – as well as the actors – evolve in chronological order. “Of course, I can act like there’s a train window here and I’m watching the trees and whatever,” says Haarla, miming how she’d perform with green screen. “But it’d be a waste of a world that exists.”

In the carriages, Kuosmanen captures a docudrama atmosphere with hustling, bustling passengers in the background. Upon losing a precious camera, Laura is then comforted by Ljoha because he happens to be there – a bond for life, simply through sheer geography. After all, in this 90s-set period drama, smartphones are yet to exist. “On the train, they can’t escape. They can’t go to Facebook. So they become closer quite steadily, but not in obvious ways.” With a laugh, she adds, “When they feel they can trust each other, that’s maybe the hottest or sexiest thing.”

In the 2014 source novel by Rosa Liksom, the story unfolds in the 80s and deals with the Soviet Union; the book’s Laura starts in St Petersburg and heads to Mongolia. Kuosmanen, though, transports his characters to somewhere snowy and best viewed, if you can, in a cinema – it was shot on 35mm for a reason. “For me, the biggest change from the novel was the power balance,” Haarla says. “In the book, he’s over 50 and presented as a really violent, tough guy, and she’s 20. But now, the man’s a bit younger than me. We don’t have to make it obvious that the man is violent.

“Every day in my life, violence is present because I’m a woman. The world means that, at all times, I need to be afraid.” Especially on a train? “Especially on a train. Or on the street. It’s everywhere. So it’s not interesting to me to continue telling those stories again and again where a woman is afraid of a man. I don’t think it does any good for anyone.”

Laura and Ljoha’s eventual rapport is tinged with romance but hard to define. It’s more than friendship, but not quite sneaking into the train’s bathroom for a quickie. Then again, Compartment No 6 isn’t concerned with classifying intimate interactions like they’re ancient rock carvings. Laura may be moved by the science behind the petroglyphs, but ultimately they’re wild works of prehistoric art that were sculpted by hand. The human element can’t be put into words.

“Of course, in every assumed love story, we are waiting for the two people to fuck,” Haarla says. “But I personally feel that sex is usually shown or used when we’re lacking other tools or ways to communicate the relationship. We think that sex is the way to solve all the problems and difficulties between us because it’s so strong as a need, as a power, as an energy. But the characters don’t need to go there.

“Maybe they’re both lacking another way of saying, ‘I like you and I appreciate you.’ But it’s because we live in this world where romance and sex are mixed everywhere. We don’t have the patience or courage to search for the other reasons we are feeling a certain way.”

Compartment No. 6 is released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on April 8