During a prestigious Russian naval training exercise, an accident with a faulty torpedo causes a massive explosion that sinks the “unsinkable” pride of the fleet, nuclear submarine the Kursk, killing all but a handful of the crew, marooning Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Kalekov (Matthias Schoenaerts) and 22 of his men at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

As Mikhail’s pregnant wife Tanya (Lea Seydoux) leads the crew’s families’ as they demand to know the truth, confronting the stonewalling Russian High Command in the shape of Max Von Sydow’s villainous admiral, Royal British Navy Commodore David Russell (Colin Firth), Russian Captain Nesterov (Michael Nyqyist) and some Norwegian oil workers meanwhile come up with a daring rescue plan. But with air running out for the trapped sailors, convincing the monolithic Russian bureaucracy to accept foreign aid becomes a desperate race against time…

I’m not sure if enjoyed is the right word for a film as queasily claustrophobic as Thomas Vinterberg’s film of Robert Moore’s forensically researched account of the Kursk disaster A Time To Die but I found Kursk: The Last Mission almost unbearably tense, moving and absorbing. 19 years is a long time. You forget things. Time clouds your memory. Did they live? Did anyone survive? And as I watched Vinterberg’s film, was sucked into it, I found myself trapped along with Schoenaerts and his men, hoping against hope that they’d make it out alive, that Firth’s humane British officer would convince the implacable Russian apparatchik to allow him to act, to save the trapped men, that they’d taste the air again.

But they won’t. And that’s the strength of Vinterberg’s film. We know these men are doomed, yet Vinterberg convinces us they have a chance, a chance that in reality they arguably never had, placing the blame for the disaster firmly on the shoulders of the Russian High Command who refused to admit weakness, refused to ask for help, the faceless, implacable state here represented by Max Von Sydow’s blinkered, patronising admiral, one chilling scene ripped from the headlines when, during a meeting with the families and before the assembled press, the authorities nobbled an irate mother, drugging, Mickey Finning her, as she started to ask uncomfortable questions. In the film, she’s taking to task Von Sydow and the duplicitous High Command when she’s surreptitiously injected with a sedative. In reality, the press conference was headed by President Vladimir Putin in the first major crisis of his presidency and, understandably, Vinterberg plays fast and loose with the facts of the event by excising Putin from the film’s narrative, producer Luc Besson & EuropaCorp obviously not keen on being the victims of Russian revenge cyberattacks.  

The performances are solid and while Léa Seydoux is woefully underused until the final act as Kalekov’s wife, Colin Firth is dependably good as the humane real-life Russell, a man desperately trying to cut through Cold War paranoia and State pride to save his fellow seamen regardless of national barriers or political regime while Matthias Schoenaerts brings his customary soulful masculinity to Kalekov, physically dominating the frame, filling the increasingly cramped, claustrophobic, dank interiors of the wounded submarine like a caged animal, Vinterberg’s camera capturing the intimacy and vulnerability of the situation even as he creates pulse-pounding set-pieces and moments of clammy tension, the scene where Schoenaerts and one of his men must swim through flooded, wreckage-strewn compartments a nerve-shredding exercise in suspense.

Tense, heart-breaking, melancholy and burning with a quiet rage, Kursk: The Last Mission is an oddly mainstream career choice for Vinterberg, one of the architects of the austere Dogme 95 movement but he pulls it off, delivering a formal audacious piece of crowd-pleasing cinema.

Movie Review: Kursk - The Last Misson
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