Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk tells the story of the doomed Russian submarine and the foiled attempts to rescue its hapless seamen. It’s a mix of character drama, suspenseful rescue adventure, and political film, with each element vying for attention. Unfortunately, it never quite gets all these elements row in the same direction.
Written by Robert Rodat, the scribe behind another tale of sacrifice, Saving Private Ryan, the story does quite a bit to illuminate the uninitiated on the events back in 2000. This is a mishap that the Russians have quickly tried to forget and the Americans had other preoccupations to focus on, while for Scandinavians such as Vinterberg who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, the events were far more impactful.
Mikhail Kalekov (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the Captain-Lieutenant of the ship, and he provides the film with both its action and its emotional content. Léa Seydoux plays his wife, who seeks answers from a taciturn military bureaucracy, while Colin Firth plays a NATO admiral whose desire to help is hampered due to geopolitical concerns.
The cast speak in English, dropping any pretense at “Russian” accents that gives the film an inadvertent Scandinavian lilt. The key elements play out in visually fine fashion thanks to superb production design, but the pacing and overall tone of the piece falter throughout. Vinterberg never seems to fully get a handle on all these elements, vacillating between more subtle and effective elements that soon segue into broader, maudlin fare.
In the end, Kursk does a decent if flawed job at paying justice to such a story. The real shame is that the tale is unlikely to see a superior take, given the myriad factors that resulted in this tragedy, elements only broadly touched upon in this film. That inherent complexity leads to a movie that’s laudable for its intentions if disappointing in its final result.