Kursk: The Last Mission

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

Kursk: The Last Mission
dir Thomas Vinterberg
scr Robert Rodat
prd Ariel Zeitoun
with Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth, Lea Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Max von Sydow, Pernilla August, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang, Joel Basman, Chris Pascal, Kristof Coenen
release Bel 7.Nov.18,
US 21.Jun.19, UK 12.Jul.19
18/Belgium 1h57

firth seydoux von sydow

coenen, schoenaerts and pascal
Shot in English, this is a Belgian film by a Danish director, which kind of scrambles the fact that it's based on a real Russian tragedy. Sharply well-made, the film has several riveting set-pieces that liven up a lacklustre narrative and the somewhat distracting Euro-pudding production. Director Vinterberg and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also skilfully ramp up both suspense and interpersonal drama.
In August 2000, the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk heads out on a naval exercise. But a test torpedo explodes, leaving the sub stranded on the bottom of the Barents Sea. Crewman Mikhail (Schoenaerts) takes charge, gathering survivors in a secure compartment to do what's needed to survive. On the surface, British Commodore Russell (Firth) reaches out to help, but the Russian leader (Von Sydow) flatly rejects assistance due to security concerns. This leaves Admiral Grudzinsky (Simonischek), struggling to to use archaic salvage equipment. Meanwhile, the crewmembers' families demand action.
While the film is a combination of real and fictionalised elements, it also features most of the usual cliches of disaster movies, for example pointing out that clearly doomed characters are newly married or have pregnant wives. Once the crew is stranded, it takes on the tone of a sci-fi movie, with those back home mounting a rescue mission against obstacles that are both physical and political. And the wives and mothers back home engage in some scrappy confrontational action. To add more visceral thrills, the trapped crew members take a series of perilous Poseidon Adventure-style actions.

Actors on all three fronts (trapped, rescuers, families) are solid, although all of the performances are far too reverent to spring strongly to life. Schoenaerts leads the crew with charisma and steely resolve, and each of the actors gets to add hints of personality here and there. Firth provides terrific crisp-Britishness as a man who simply wants to help, and Simonischek finds subtle shadings as his Russian counterpart. Meanwhile back home, Seydoux and August get meaty side roles as Mikhail's family.

Oddly, the film feels compromised to avoid insulting the real-life Russian officials who made calamitous decisions. Most notably, Vladimir Putin has been scrubbed from the story (he was front and centre at the time). But then the eclectic approach to casting and writing will probably prevent this film from ever connecting with Russian audiences, turning one of their momentous historical events into an American-style blockbuster. It also keeps the film from touching on the real issues this situation raised.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 1.Jul.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall