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Strangers on a train connect, in wry, heartfelt film ‘Compartment No. 6’

Seidi Haarla, left, and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6.” (Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)
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(4 stars)

As any fan of “Before Sunrise” and its sequels can tell you, there’s nothing more romantically promising than two strangers on a train.

That’s just one premise that’s simultaneously subverted and elaborated on in “Compartment No. 6,” Juho Kuosmanen’s funny, generous-hearted road movie. When we meet Laura (Seidi Haarla), she’s at a party in Moscow, making her way through a beautifully lit flat full of intellectuals and bohemians. She’s on her way to the Russian city of Murmansk, to study the petroglyphs there, her archaeological ambitions fusing with a less-explicit longing to understand her place in the world. She was supposed to go with a lover, but instead she’s on her own — rejected, heartbroken and unmoored.

When she meets Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), with whom she will share a sleeping car for the nearly two-day journey, he seems determined to scare her away: Determined to get as drunk as possible, he assumes she’s Estonian (she’s Finnish), fixes her with an implacable stare and makes crass and sexist assumptions about her reasons for heading to the Arctic port city. Laura makes for the dining car, where she’ll stay until it closes. When she asks the humorless train conductor (Julia Aug) to switch berths, the woman replies with typical post-Soviet resignation. “You think you have a choice?”

What ensues in “Compartment No. 6,” which was loosely inspired by the novel by Finnish author Rosa Liksom, is a wry, heartfelt study of two characters who can’t escape their entwined fate, forged within the confines of cramped quarters and the peculiar intimacies of Russian train travel. You know a filmmaker has mastered world-building when his movies don’t just have atmosphere, but a distinctive aroma: Kuosmanen, whose last film was 2016’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki,” drenches “Compartment No. 6” in a simultaneously off-putting and piquant fug of vodka, homemade pickles, mayonnaise-drenched salads, cigarette smoke and the earthy, ever-ripening body odors of his hyper-proximate protagonists. (Even that train conductor warms up as the weather outside gets colder.)

Kuosmanen also suffuses “Compartment No. 6” with mordant Slavic humor, especially when it comes to the supposed national characteristics of Russians and Finns, who come in for affectionate ribbing from each other and the filmmaker himself. At a time when Russia seems to be on the brink of hostilities in Ukraine, a film celebrating connection, however unlikely and vagrant, feels like a balm. If a particular plot development featuring Laura and one of her countrymen turns out to be on-the-nose — bordering on the patronizing — the larger point, about assumptions, snobbery and our constant invitation to see past each other’s surfaces, couldn’t be more timely.

To borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell, “Compartment No. 6” settles into the clicketyclack of life lived out-of-time, as Laura and Ljoha talk, smoke and laugh, at one point spending an inebriated night visiting a friend of Ljoha’s in Petrozavodsk. As the two make their way north, “Compartment No. 6” becomes an evocative portrait of Russia in all its grim but indomitable beauty. Laura and Ljoha come into touching, layered focus by way of Haarla and Borisov’s performances. Borisov delivers an especially poignant portrayal of a man who’s used to being stereotyped — at one point, a character scoffs that there must be a factory that makes men like him — but he endures the condescension of others, with his own being a form of swaggering, hard-won grace.

The final half-hour, set amid the gelid otherworldliness of Murmansk and the Barents Sea, the shifting emotional dynamics that have fueled Laura and Ljoha’s trip come to a climax that’s both breathtakingly dramatic and disarmingly understated. That contradiction is in keeping with the endearing lightness with which “Compartment No. 6” conveys its complexities about human foibles and feelings. Kuosmanen has given us another affair to remember, this time about love as something for which you’d not just go to the ends of the Earth, but to the beginning of time.

R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong language and some sexual references. In Finnish and Russian with subtitles. 107 minutes.

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