Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Kursk (Thomas Vinterberg, 2018)


It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster, which saw 118 men lose their lives during Russia's first significant naval exercise since the fall of the USSR.  Although only on a training mission, the Kursk was carrying a full complement of live weapons, and these were the source of an accidental explosion which saw the stricken vessel sink to the bottom of the Barents Sea.  Shortly after settling, a second, much larger explosion - which registered 4.2 on the Richter scale - was recorded.  It was hours before anyone realised that the submarine was missing - its rescue buoy, reportedly welded in place, had failed to deploy - and many days before a rescue team was able to get inside the vessel; by that stage, as we all know, it was far too late.  The Russian government came under much criticism for its handling of the incident - after locating the submarine yet failing to attach a diving bell to it, the government rebuffed a number of offers of help from other nations including France, Germany and Israel, with President Putin - who at that point had been in his role for just a few months - eventually accepting help from the UK and Norway.  The British-Norwegian teams of divers worked to help access the submarine and facilitate the recovering of the bodies.


The real horror at the heart of the Kursk story lies not with the deaths of those who perished as a result of the initial explosions and subsequent flooding - although that is horrific enough - but in the submarine's ninth compartment, where 23 men managed to hole up in the dark and cold.  In this area, the men had an air pocket that would have sustained them for a while, but nothing like the time it took for help to arrive.  The released parts of a letter written by a Captain-Lieutenant, who fumbled his way around the page in the dark while using his illuminated wristwatch to note down the time, are the only real personal glimpses we have of what it was like for these men who, as it turned out, were hideously unlucky to have survived the explosions and their immediate aftermath.  The Captain-Lieutenant is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, an appealing and dependable actor who captures the essence of someone who was both liked and respected by his men, and who did his best to keep everyone's spirits up in the face of a clock which was always going to run out.


Kursk, a production from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, sees Schoenearts reteam with Thomas Vinterberg, with the two having previously collaborated on 2015 literary adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd.  Vinterberg's roaring success of a debut feature, Festen, was released before the Kursk even sank, and in the intervening years he's largely struggled to live up to his first film, although his Oscar-nominated Jagten was terrific.  He is, however,  a consistently interesting filmmaker, and one who has always worked fairly steadily, although a fairly orthodox film like Kursk provides him with few opportunities to apply the kind of off-kilter flourishes we might expect from this director.  The pan-European cast also features Léa Seydoux, Colin Firth and Max von Sydow; if nothing else, the production, which may well be dismissed by some as a Euro-pudding, stands as a display of international co-operation that's in sharp contrast to both the belligerence at the core of the Kursk story and the current global political climate.


That the sinking of the Kursk (which, like the Titanic, was widely considered unsinkable) comes early in the film and not at the climax tells us much about the scale of the terror here; in many movies, the critical explosions would come after a long buildup.  Kursk proves to be a tough watch - as a film based on terrible real-life events, its preordained outcome hovers over the entire running time; matters are made much worse through watching the near-miss of the diving bell as it fails to lock onto the sub.  Some of these men came so close to being saved, but the tragic tale sticks to its awful path, as it must; it's like Open Water on a much larger scale.  Kursk is a competent if rather workmanlike film, yet one which grows more disturbing once you've seen it; it's only in the hours and days after seeing the film that the sorry fate of these men will really haunt you.  EuropaCorp's films - outside of Besson's own directorial efforts - tend to be fairly generic, and the starry Kursk is no exception.  But regardless of its merits, Kursk's very existence serves as a reminder of a disaster many of us won't have thought about for some time.

Darren Arnold

Images: EuropaCorp

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