Kursk doesn’t want you to remember the actual disaster too closely, just some of its fallout.

This week’s thriller is based on the disappearance of Russia’s titular submarine and it’s 118 personnel 19 years past. Recounting the explosions on board and the local and international attempts to rescue the crew, stretches of Kursk play pretty fast and loose with events. Told from three broad perspectives, we are taken on board the vessel alongside Matthias Shoenaerts’ Mikhail Averin, transported to the suburbs of Russia and the Officers’ families, among them Averin’s partner Tanya (Lea Seydoux), and the halls of power on either side of the historic Cold War divide.

Treated to the realities and realpolitik of the naval high commands via Colin Firth’s very British, very concerned front-man, it is this tranche that bore the prospects to prove most intriguing. The timing of the retelling, even accounting for this film’s very rote, by the numbers depiction of the disaster, cannot be divorced from the current political reality and the status of ties between Russian, western nations and NATO. The events of 2000 a significant barometer of post-Cold war relations, the diplomatic fallout of these most recent years past are no less so and it is within this context that this film’s dramatisation, intentional or otherwise, transpires.

The Kursk disaster remains emblematic of the strained, difficult bilateral relationships between many nations and Russia strongly characterised by mistrust. Pointedly pivoting to these elements only within stages of the third act, however well it is managed in passing allows precious little and certainly inadequate time to unpack what is unquestionably this film’s hook and potential for greater resonance. Instead turning it’s attention for much of the action to that below sea level, these events, having been heavily embellished, play out in very traditional thriller territory and never so emphatically as that knowingly reflective of real life circumstances.

Having said this, any depiction of what transpired for many of the Kursk’s sailors will fairly be subject to speculation in any retelling, the best parts of which are heralded by Schoenaerts’ deft capability. Having before worked to excellent effect with Director Thomas Vinterberg, Schoenaerts’ first and foremost contribution herein is an excellent long-held shot through the vessel’s deluged channels that too required a strong degree of technical prowess.   

Seydoux is predictably very good though is noticeably short-changed, as is Max von Sydow as the stand-in for Russia’s then and now leader; a curious piece of casting given Shoenaerts’ himself, a significantly more ostensible avatar, managed so well in Red Sparrow. The filmmakers’ neglecting to put in this particular figure moreover given his role in events renders him, alongside the Norwegians, the Americans, NATO and many more, conspicuous by their absence.

Sydow does however feature in one of two excellent concluding scenes, both of which could have but thankfully neglected to dispatch the political message with needless bluntness. To note; Sydow and his co-stars are permitted, unlike the aforementioned Russian-centric thriller and alike the excellent The Death of Stalin, to just use their regular accents absent any faux attempts to actually sound Russian, resulting in performances that much more emphatic.

Nonetheless pulling punches and only nominally interested in that beyond the conventionally dramatic action/thriller potential inherent in this tale and those determinedly relevant bona fides that could have rendered this retelling an exponentially more engaging and consequential film, the creatives had much else to tackle and spent way too much time treading water.

Kursk screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Sydney Film Festival and will screen as part of the Travelling Film Festivalon Saturday 17 August at 4:30PM at Majestic Cinemas Port Macquarie and Sunday September 8 at 7:30PM at BCC Cinemas Toowoomba

on Falkenscreen