In cinemas and on VoD from Fri 12 Jul 2019

Much like HBO’s recent mini-series Chernobyl, Kursk: The Last Mission depicts some foolhardy Russian statecraft and the blatant deception of apparatchiks during the Kursk Crisis and subsequent tragedy.   By focusing on one particular, albeit fictional grieving relative, director Thomas Vinterberg (of Dogme 95 fame) limits the emotional implications of the crisis to one family which amplifies the stakes instead of demanding that the audience keep track of multiple discrete dramas.

Introduced in the first act via the Deer Hunter wedding technique the crew are mere emotional scenery for the story of Mikhail Averin (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who acts as the team leader of the survivors.   His wife Tanya, portrayed by Lea Seydoux, becomes the emotional heart of the movie as she rails against the pathetic bureaucracy rolled out to brief the relatives.  Despite avoiding some obviously contentious elements Vinterberg should be praised for recreating the actual drugging of a grieving relative in a press conference which was captured on Russian television at the time.

More memorable turns come from Magnus Millang playing Oleg the joker who provides a little comic relief but with little character development of the other survivors, this levity is wasted.  Tom Hudson as the bewildering inept Roman fares somewhat better with his anxious looks and verbal quirks highlighting the relative youth of many of the crew and their lack of preparedness for the gravity of the situation.

A distinct highlight is the sequence of explosions which dooms the sub and appears to be timed to signal the second act.  The Canadian effects company MELS should be credited with the imperceptible use of water and explosive effects to replicate two tonnes of TNT exploding in a confined space.  The sound mixing at this moment also provides the requisite heft and magnitude to convey the sense of helplessness that is immediately instilled in the survivors after the second explosion obliterates most of the sub.

Much like the recent HBO series Chernobyl the screenplay lays the blame with the foolhardy Russian defence ideology which makes secrecy paramount at the expense of the lives of the submariners or admission of mistakes.  However, Saving Private Ryan writer Robert Rodat’s script fails to ignite the spectacular material and only comes alive when at pains to portray the Royal Navy as the potential saviours of the sailors.

Vinterberg is keen to highlight that Putin’s omission was motivated by a wish to focus on the family aspect of the tragedy and the lack of accurate data about the actions of the Politburo necessitated a broader and more humanistic methodology.  This approach has created a middling tribute to the men and women of the Kursk and indicates that there is enough unexplored material to provide the basis for a more robust investigation.