A real-life submarine disaster, the fate of the Kursk feels like it belongs to the Cold War era of suspicion and secrecy, when the Soviet bloc was isolated from the West. In fact, this appalling tragedy took place long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, on 12 August, 2000. During a Russian naval exercise, this nuclear-powered sub was downed when a practice torpedo exploded on board, sinking the vessel to the bottom of the Barents Sea.
With most of the crew dead, 23 men miraculously survived the first explosion – and a more damaging second – leaving them sheltered in a tiny soon-to-be-waterlogged compartment, with dwindling oxygen supplies. Geeing up the crew is Mikhail Kalekov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a naval lieutenant who leaves behind his pregnant wife Tanya (Léa Seydoux) and their three year-old son. But as director Thomas Vinterberg shows, this is no simple rescue mission.
The Danish-born filmmaker is on unfamiliar ground here; his best films, The Hunt and Festen, are stories of extreme human drama but set in ordinary surroundings. Nevertheless, he adapts well, with the help of his oft-used cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, to create a film that’s feels claustrophobic and suffocating. One scene in particular, as Mikhail and another submarine mate swim into a submerged cabin looking for oxygen cartridges, is nerve-tingling in its execution.
As proficient as Vinterberg proves in the action stakes, the real drama comes ashore, as arrogant Russian politicians refuse to sanction outside help – including from Colin Firth’s British Royal Navy Commodore David Russell – after it becomes clear that their rescue equipment is woefully inadequate. As this begins to dawn on Tanya and the other relatives, so there are confrontations with Russian naval officials – led by Max von Sydow at his most hangdog.
Adapted from A Time to Die, Robert Moore’s 2002 novel about the disaster, with Saving Private Ryan’s Robert Rodat on screenwriting duties, this is a film of contrasts. The rows of grey tower blocks on land versus the cramped airless conditions in the submarine; bravery versus bureaucracy and so on. If the film is not quite on the level of the titanic WW2 sub film Das Boot, it makes a fair stab at conveying the horrors of this disaster and the cost of human life.
Kursk: The Last Mission opens on 12 July. For more details, visit Signature Entertainment.
1. Still from Kursk: The Last Mission.