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Film Review: Kursk - The Last Mission

10 July 19 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Thomas Vinterberg's film about the Kursk submarine disaster is out in cinemas this week...

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Starring: Colin First, Matthias Schoenaerts, Max Von Sydow

Running time: 117 mins

Sometimes a disaster doesn’t just happen on its own. There can be extenuating circumstances which happen outside of human control, but this doesn’t automatically mean that events have to spiral out of control and cause complete catastrophe. Unfortunately, the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 was pretty much the perfect example of everything going completely wrong at the same time, as well as being subject to really bad judgment calls by the people in charge. But in some ways, when a disaster is this spectacular, it's pretty fascinating to delve into the murky depths of why, how and what really happened. Acclaimed director Thomas Vinterberg (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Hunt) was given the task of bringing this retelling to life and to represent the people who were involved, including the men on board and their families left behind on shore.

The Kursk was a Russian nuclear submarine taking part in a routine military exercise when a series of huge explosions ripped it apart, sending it to the bottom of the sea with the men still trapped inside. Mikhail Kalekov (Matthias Schoenaerts), one of the officers on board, finds himself stranded with 22 other men in a compartment, somehow still mostly intact but with oxygen rapidly running out. He convinces the men to put their faith in the Russian Navy, urging them to believe everything is being done to rescue them. And so they wait, in the dark at the bottom of the sea. But although the accident has been reported straight away, the Navy stalls, unsure whether or not anyone has been left alive.  There is also a dire lack of equipment, and the technology they do have is woefully inadequate to the task. 

It is a film that will stay with me for a long time to come.

As the situation worsens and the Navy are pushed into action, other countries, including Norway and Britain come forward offering to help. But once again, there are obstacles. Cold War angst still poisons relations between the different governments and Admiral Grudzinsky (Peter Simonischek) is ordered to unequivocally refuse all assistance. Meantime, back on land, the families of all the men trapped on the submarine are being kept in the dark about what is really going on.  Mikhail’s wife (Léa Seydoux) starts realise what is happening which leads her to start questioning the judgement and integrity of the apparently paralysed and apathetic people in charge.

It’s a heavy drama that is furthered burdened by it being based on a true story. But it is a story that needs to be told. With excellent performances from Seydoux, Schoenaerts and also Colin Firth - who plays British Commodore David Russell, one of the men involved in the rescue mission – it is a story told well, with a great deal of passion and heart. And the action was truly gripping, in a terrifying cross between The Poseidon Adventure and Deepwater Horizon. It is a film that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Did you know? This was Michael Nyqvist's final film. He died of lung cancer in June 2017, a month before shooting was finished

Kursk: The Last Mission is in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12

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