TIFF Review: ‘KURSK’ an occasionally gripping historical drama about the 2000 Russian submarine disaster

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

KURSK

Not rated, 117 minutes.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Matthias SchoenaertsLéa SeydouxColin FirthMichael NyqvistAugust Diehl and Max von Sydow

Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg is a revolutionary filmmaker. Back in the ‘90s, he created films about uncovering truths and writing wrongs. His seminal work FESTEN remains a groundbreaking piece of cinema; its very mention will receive applause from an international audience.

Lately, he has been slowly commercializing himself with the 2012 Academy Award-nominated film THE HUNT and the near-great 2015 Carey Mulligan costume-drama FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

The evolution of Vinterberg has led him to tell the story of KURSK, a historical drama about the titular Russian submarine that exploded in the summer of 2000, leaving 100-plus men stranded below with little resources to stay alive.

To be honest, U-571 is the gold standard for submarine movies. It had character moments that ramped up the tension to create a damn good pressure cooker of a movie. KURSK certainly boasts a stellar cast: Matthias Schoenaerts (who just exists on screen as the hero), Léa Seydoux (Schoenaerts’ characters’ worried wife) and Colin Firth (a Royal Navy officer who could save them all if it wasn’t for the pride of Russian politics). However, the film ventures into the schmaltzy tone of Hollywood rescue mission films – DEEPWATER HORIZON comes to mind – mixed with slight moments of the handheld goodness that was employed in Vinterberg’s earlier work.

Moments of suspense are abound here, but not abundant. Schoenaerts does his best work as the “everyman hero” who rallies his men to get their heads in the game as we watch them solve a myriad of tasks. The crown jewel of the film isn’t in the climax (but in the closing shots a biting moment when the families of the men stick to a Russian commander played by Max Von Sydow); instead, it’s in a suffocating underwater sequence at the film’s end.

Overall, KURSK is an unsurprising piece of work from Vinterberg and his cast. They’ve created a serviceable film that is being distributed by Eurocorp and STX films. As of now, there is no word of when this will be coming stateside, but keep it on your radar.

[Grade: C+]

KURSK premiered on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. The Toronto International Film Festival will have encore screenings on 9/7, 9/12 (P&I screening only) and 9/13. Visit tiff.net for more details on the showtimes.