With HBO’s Chernobyl winning the ravest of rave reviews earlier in the year, and now Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk entering UK cinemas, Russian disasters caused and exacerbated by the hubris and cowardice of the authorities are clearly in vogue in 2019. Yet, where Chernobyl stands as a towering masterpiece, Kursk, based on the 2000 sinking of the eponymous submarine, sits at merely the level of ‘pretty decent’. It’s got the requisite anger and frustration at the unnecessary loss of the entire Kursk crew, but can’t use it effectively enough to keep all of its stories consistently compelling.
Taking a three-pronged approach, Robert Rodat’s script examines the frantic final hours of the men at the sea floor, the hunt for answers in Russia by their families, and the thwarted attempts of the British Royal Navy to mount their own rescue operation. Naturally, it’s when we’re in the sub that Kursk is at its most exciting, the shocking violence of the initial explosion (caused by an overheated torpedo) giving way to slow, claustrophobic horror. Of the initially 118-strong crew, fewer than 25 survive the blasts and they, led by stoic Captain Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenarts) try to gather resources to stay alive as long as they can.
The exhaustion of these efforts is effectively communicated, with ceaseless cold and wet hammering away at the men’s spirits, and great makeup work shows the harrowing effect of the prolonged asphyxiation that the crew suffered as they had to ration their oxygen. Missions into the more damaged parts of the sub are tense, Vinterberg’s camera rarely cutting as Mikhail and his team navigate tight flooded corridors. The sailors oscillating between hope and despair as the rickety Russian rescue boats repeatedly fail to dock is affecting, especially as history tells us that none of these men were going to make it home. There are some weirdly counter-intuitive visual choices though, and tension is sapped whenever we visit the surface.
Lea Seydoux gets more to do as Tanya Averina than the ‘worried wife back home’ role description might suggest, fighting against the prepared, patriotic speeches the Russian naval command give to the sailors’ families in lieu of any real answers. One of the press conferences she goes to is genuinely infuriating, Seydoux’s frustration and rage exploding off the screen at the all-too-relatable nothing answers and smug dismissiveness of those in charge. Yet, Kursk is never quite sure how much we should be invested in the rest of the families, so we spend too much time with them without seeing them develop as characters.
In the final strand, Colin Firth is completely wasted as Commodore David Russell, who has a spend a lot of his time distantly removed from the action while waiting for phone calls. Firth does bring some gravitas and general star wattage to proceedings, but he’s really not given enough to do until the very end of the film, existing more as a cypher for rejected international aid than as an actual human character.
Kursk’s anger is fuelled by a lot of what-ifs. What if the submarine had been permitted to fire its faulty torpedo? What if the Russian government hadn’t been so proud and stubborn that they rejected NATO assistance until far too late? Yet these hypotheticals are irrelevant to the men on board, whose miserable demises make up Kursk’s most memorable and effective scenes. It’s a film with a lot to say, but unfortunately it only becomes less interesting any time it makes its political points.