Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk marks the director’s fourth film in the English language, and knowing already of the attachment of Vinterberg’s name it should promise greatness but the case with Kursk gives something that doesn’t fit so well under there. This drama, telling the story of the Kursk submarine disaster that claimed the lives of 118 men, without doubt has an admirable intent behind it yet it seems to have trouble even staying afloat – almost like the submarine whose story the film is telling you about. Admittedly, having walked into Kursk I had only known about as much as it being a true story – yet the moment I finished, I couldn’t help myself but think that this was a story that deserved so much better than what it received. Thomas Vinterberg has never been a particularly consistent filmmaker, even if his skill is so obviously clear – yet so much of it feels lacking in the case of Kursk. This barely feels like the Vinterberg that I’ve already come to love over the years, but someone else wearing Vinterberg’s name as a moniker – someone that just feels indistinguishable at that.
In telling the story of the disaster, we already open on a most fitting note with the submarine captain coming together with his pregnant wife and son before celebrating what they have in store for the future. The moment the aspect ratio changes the moment we also find ourselves in a position where we get a sense of the paranoia about what happens on board the sunken submarine, with so little oxygen remaining – before cutting back to what’s happening above ground, where people are fighting with the government in order to make sure that the lives of the people on board are safe. Perhaps there’d be something great that comes out from telling a story of this scope but none of that potential ever feels realized. There’s half of a great movie buried beneath a frustrating narrative and an even weaker screenplay, but it’s never completely unwatchable. For a film that spends so much time being underwater, it’s just rather alarming that most of its impact seems to come forward at surface level.
What Vinterberg strives to capture in Kursk, especially within the fear of being unable to survive underwater for so long – from the first aspect ratio change onward, there’s a sense of claustrophobia being emphasized here that can already be felt. Vinterberg, whose best work has often made the most out of a small space as shown in a film like Celebration still retains his talent for that here. Yet the first moment we cut to what takes place above ground, with political turmoils coming aplenty – with the family members fighting to know if their loved ones are still alive, it also becomes a repetitive mess bordering on melodrama. Cutting back and forth between these moments, there’s a clear disconnect present in the storytelling that also transfers itself with relative ease to the viewers. For of course, such a disaster is an embarrassing mistake on the Russian government – but what’s being said beyond that?
Most of this film just feels bogged down by an otherwise weak screenplay, building itself upon awkward exchanges that only show their cracks thanks especially given how the actors recite them. Everyone’s clearly trying their best, but there’s never a moment where any of the tension feels particularly convincing – no matter who it is that’s reading out their lines. There’s never much suspense to be carried from these exchanges, but credit’s due where credit’s due as the actors still manage to do the best that they can. It’s nice enough getting to see an actor like Max von Sydow trying his best, or Michael Nyqvist in one of his own final roles giving a spin – but these great performances that are present here only show far more cracks within the storytelling and exposing the overblown melodrama that would only place this story within the stature of how one imagines an equally overblown period piece.
Kursk was a story that deserved to be told, yet it also deserved to have a much better movie. It’s a story that deserved to be told because of what it has to say about the ignorance of a country’s own government towards their own people, especially when they are caught within a life-or-death scenario like they are in here. But even if I had known the outcome by the time the film ended, I still found myself feeling unsatisfied, because what Thomas Vinterberg creates here doesn’t play itself to be like that Vinterberg I’ve loved. It’s best described as a case scenario where we’re having two films being told at the same time, and it’s clear which one has more effort being put into it – but knowing already the tragedy of the actual event that this was based on, you can’t help but feel everyone deserved much better.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via TIFF.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Screenplay by Robert Rodat, from A Time to Die by Robert Moore
Produced by Ariel Zeitoun, Luc Besson, Lisa Ellzey, Laurent Hanon, Clément Sentilhes
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth, Léa Seydoux, Max von Sydow, Michael Nyqvist
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 110 minutes