Based on a true story, the movie is an adaptation of the book A Time to Die: The Kursk Disaster by British investigative journalist and Soviet Union expert Robert Moore. On August 12, 2000, in the Barents Sea north of Norway, the nuclear submarine Kursk and its 118-person crew is preparing to launch a training torpedo as part of an exercise designed to demonstrate the power of the Russian fleet. But a technical problem causes the torpedo to explode while still in the ammunitions room. The blast almost destroys the submarine, and the 23 surviving sailors find refuge at the back of the damaged craft. They spend five days trapped waiting for the rescue teams to arrive. Meanwhile, on dry land their families battle desperately with the Russian authorities, who refuse all foreign aid and make any successful recovery seem increasingly unlikely.
Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s disaster movie is a far cry from The Celebration, which saw him win the Jury’s Prize at Cannes in 1998. It is a shame the screenplay focuses more on the rescue operations than on the facts and the political tensions surrounding the events (Vladimir Putin’s character was supposedly removed just before filming began, and his name is never mentioned).
But the plot holds up and takes audiences through every moment of the ordeal experienced by the sailors and their families. The cast is led by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts in the role of sailor Mikhail Kalekov, and Léa Seydoux as Tanya, his pregnant wife. British actor Colin Firth (who won an Oscar for his performance in The King’s Speech in 2011) plays Commander David Russell of the Royal Navy. The scenes aboard the submarine were filmed in the ports of Brest and Toulon, and in the French submarine Le Redoutable in Cherbourg, and are one of the movie’s highlights. Carried by a soundtrack from French composer Alexandre Desplat, these sequences combine to create realistic scenes. Anyone with claustrophobia should perhaps think twice.