On August 12th it will have been nineteen years since the Kursk submarine disaster, a naval accident that claimed the lives of all 118 people aboard the Russian submarine Kursk. Thomas Vinterberg’s newest film KURSK: THE LAST MISSION tries to tell the story of those aboard the vessel as well as the stories of their families seeking answers, the Russian men who tried to help, and the British navy who extended their services. The result is a lacklustre film, full of bored performances, that sinks halfway through the story and is unable to resurface.
Based on Robert Moore’s 2003 book on the event, Time To Die, the film follows the story of a small handful of the men aboard the submarine Kursk as they attempt to survive at the bottom of the sea after a naval exercise goes wrong. Much of the action happens in the submarine, its close quarters being a suffocating presence for both the characters and the audience. Matthias Schoenaerts plays the heroic Mikhail, stationed on the submarine with his fellow naval friends (some more big names in world cinema including August Diehl, Magnus Millang and Pit Bukowski). At the surface, their small Russian hometown collectively begs for answers from Max von Sydow’s devious Vladimir Petrenko – a naval officer all too keen to hide the truth from the public. In supporting roles are the always brilliant Lea Seydoux, playing Mikhail’s pregnant wife left to care for their son, and Colin Firth, who sighs through his lines with all the excitement of a sleeping lion.
Vinterberg seems to be a fair way away from his humble beginnings with Dogme 95 and FESTEN, and he is perhaps too interested in the glitzy glamour of big-budget filmmaking to really pay any interest in crafting an interesting film. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some good sequences in the film. On several occasions Vinterberg guides the camera underwater with magnificent ease and lets ambient noise play a key role – the suffocating silence of some scenes is sometimes too much to bear. You cannot fault Vinterberg for trying, and nothing about the film is explicitly awful.
The film is just so very eager to reach its conclusion that it doesn’t let its characters be any more than pawns in a deadly game of aquatic chess. Other nautical dramas like DAS BOOT and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER made the audience care for the characters as they struggled with their missions. In KURSK it feels more like wanting the whole nightmare to end, not to cease their suffering, but ours.