Director Thomas Vinterberg and a formidable cast recreate the final hours of a real-life nuclear submarine.
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film tells the true, tragic story of how the neglect, incompetence, greed, and pride of Russian Navy officials led to the deaths of dozens of men on the Kursk, a nuclear submarine once deemed unsinkable.
Because actual people died in the events that they depict, films about real-life tragedies often strive to pay tribute to the victims. To tell their story truthfully and to immortalise it on screen is already one way of doing so, but even the best intentions are muddled when the dead are not simply portrayed as innocent victims, but as saints and martyrs. The urge to emphasise the goodness in the dead is understandable, but it often grossly implies that certain lives have more value than others.
Vinterberg lays into this uncomfortable impulse without restraint, often to tiresome effect. The film opens with a series of sequences showcasing the unusual generosity of Matthias Schoenaerts’ Mikhail Kalekov, his idyllic home life with his pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux in a thankless role) and son, and the camaraderie between him and the men of his crew. When one of them struggles to pay for his wedding party, all his friends spontaneously pawn their watches: they know that he would do the same for them.
These are all positive and lovely scene to witness, but none of them seem genuine – the sentiments shown rather than felt. Vinterberg appears to be aiming for prestige drama but does not pull it off. The dialogue is largely to blame, but it isn’t helped by the maddening casting choices: to have all the characters communicate in English makes some kind of sense, but it does not explain why almost every actor plays a character of a different nationality than their own. The most baffling example is the casting of Peter Simonischek (the titular Toni Erdmann) as a Russian Navy official.
To make things worse, the story is stripped of the political resonance and implications that the events did carry at the time. There are a few vague references to old Russian ships and lack of funds, but Vladimir Putin – who had just began his presidency when the incident occurred – is conspicuously absent. This simplification deprives the audience of ways to connect with the film, but it also makes the tragedy appear episodic and random, as opposed to a meaningful moment in post Cold War relations.
Vinterberg seems to care more about the visual look of the film than he does about the story itself. The undeniably beautiful cinematography and carefully realised sets only emphasise the glibness of script. But on a more fundamental level, this choice of aesthetic violently jars with the film’s other ambitions – along with a dramatic retelling of the bureaucratic negotiations on land between Russian and British authorities, Kursk also strives to offer a visceral account of the men’s suffering in the submarine.
The film’s shift from a narrow aspect ratio to a much wider one when the submarine gets to sea does put a more realist slant on proceedings. But the clunky dialogue, clichéd relationships and characterisation of every character undermine all these efforts. Even as we witness the extreme conditions these men were put under – risk of explosion, freezing temperatures and a lack of oxygen – Kursk ultimately leaves us cold.
Published 8 Sep 2018
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