Movie review: Kursk

A Russian submarine disaster film tries to mix suspense with melodrama

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
With Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Colin Firth, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Max von Sydow

People may remember the real-life drama of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank in the inhospitable Barents Sea in August 2000 during a military exercise. The world waited while several rescue attempts were made.

The film Kursk, made in English, sheds some light on the murky chain of events that led up to the disaster, but also fills the plot with a number of cliches. Even if you remember the outcome, the underwater scenes are quite suspenseful. The melodrama back on the surface is a bit more predictable.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg began his career in the Dogme 95 movement, which he co-founded with controversial director Lars von Trier. Over the ensuing years, von Trier has gone further into artistic experiment, recently directing the startling horror film The House that Jack Built, while Vinterberg has gone in the opposite direction and embraced the main stream. That is a shame, because Kursk could have benefited from some clever touches to lift it out of the ordinary.

The first part of the film tries to humanize the characters. Several of the Russian sailors are trying to get enough vodka for a wedding of one of their shipmates, but they haven’t been paid. One of the wives, Tanya (Léa Seydoux), is heavily pregnant. They all sing patriotic songs while downing vodka. It is perhaps overkill in the attempt to bond the characters with the audience.

The chain of events leading up to the disaster is handled a bit better, with a series of mounting problems related to defective equipment and an unwillingness to stray from orders and interfere with the schedule of the training exercise.

Austrian actor Peter Simonischek, who starred in the hit comedy Toni Erdmann, is the head of the Northern Fleet, Admiral Vyacheslav Grudzinsky. He comes off as a bit weak, reminiscing about the good old days and bemoaning all the cutbacks in fleet spending.
The disaster is so huge that the sound is picked up by Western monitoring stations.

British Commodore David Russell (Colin Firth) quickly realizes what likely happened and rattles off a very helpful list of what the Russians should do, but likely won’t, as they lack the resources and are too proud to ask for help.

Veteran actor Max von Sydow, now 89 years old, also makes an appearance as a top Russian admiral to stand in for the ineffectual leadership from Moscow, reassuring people with transparent lies as the situation becomes more dire.

While Colin Firth is British enough to lend the right tone to his scenes, the mixed assortment of Austrian, French, Swedish, Belgian and German actors don’t project a convincing group of Russians.

The casting was obviously done so that at least one of the actors would have a wide appeal in the different various film markets, but they don’t really come together as a team. They don’t play the characters with annoying fake Russian accents, but the somewhat bland delivery of the uninspired English dialogue is a still a drawback.

After the initial disaster, some of the underwater action comes off as a but contrived, with several incidents thrown in to give the crew something to do aside from waiting for a rescue attempt. But this at least gives some life to the film. Each of the action scenes can get the audience on the edge of the seat. And the cast is much better when they are doing things, rather than talking.

Léa Seydoux stands out in the cast as a tough pregnant woman trying to get answers and some action from the authorities on the surface.

This isn’t the first disaster film about a Russian nuclear submarine. K-19: The Widowmaker, about a 1962 disaster, stared Harrison Ford. It came out in 2002 and was a bit more polished. The film had good reviews but failed at the box office.

Russia has been in the news a lot recently, mostly for interference in international politics and for human rights issues. The timing might not be good for a film with the Russian military as its main focus.

People that remember the Kursk incident and want to know more about what likely happened, though, may find the suspenseful parts compelling enough to overshadow the melodramatic elements.

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