Thomas Vinterberg’s movie Kursk was never going to have a happy ending - it follows a true event. On August 12, 2000, the world was mesmerised by a tragedy unfolding deep beneath the Barents Sea off Russia. The Russian Navy was carrying out exercises, and one of its submarines, the Kursk, had had a terrible accident. A missile it was carrying malfunctioned and exploded in the torpedo bay, setting off all the other torpedoes there, too.
The Kursk had not come into the world easily. While it was being built, the USSR collapsed. Its massive military was no longer affordable, and so troops went without pay, ships were sold off, along with rescue vessels, and lot of equipment was sent to become scrap iron for whatever price it could fetch. The Kursk was eventually completed and launched in 1994, a nuclear-powered beast that represented the pinnacle of Soviet technology.
Able to stay underwater for 120 days, she was designed to have a very low magnetic signature, which would keep her hidden from the enemy. She could also break through Arctic ice. The Kursk was state of the art; so having her fall into the enemy’s hands would have been unthinkable.
But amidst the cutbacks in the military, there was often not enough fuel for the vessel, let alone money to send it out more than once, so the crew were inexperienced.
It is against this backdrop that our movie starts. The Kursk crew are struggling to find enough money to buy champagne for a wedding. Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his friends pawn their expensive mariners’ watches to secure the bubbly.
The following day, they set out on in the submarine. Mikhail is babysitting a torpedo that seems to have a very dangerous hydrogen leak. He wants it fired as soon as possible, but his superiors don’t think it’s too urgent and wait until the scheduled moment. The torpedo explodes, setting off a fire. Mikhail manages to get out of the torpedo bay and further towards the end of the stricken vessel, just before the rest of the warheads detonate. Miraculously, the back end of the ship is untouched, so survivors head there, closing doors between compartments. But, it’s only a matter of time before they run out of air.
Mikhail’s wife, Tanya (Lea Seydoux), is pregnant with her second child. She becomes the tigress in this story, refusing to accept the military’s explanations, and demanding that she and the other wives and mothers are told the truth.
Meanwhile, Western powers realise that something has gone terribly wrong. They are able to pick up the Kursk’s explosions as “seismic events” and then they see the fleet congregating at one spot. It’s not long before they know the Kursk is in trouble.
There are moments of sheer joy and elation, when the Russian submersible hears the sailors banging on the hull, and reports that some are still alive. There are also moments of deep despair as the submersible fails, and the realisation dawns that it will never succeed. The audience is cast into a pit of hopelessness, poignantly balanced with the faith of the trapped men.
Colin Firth plays British Commodore David Russell, who led the efforts to recover the Kurk’s crew. His frustration and rage is palpable when, against all sense, the Russians continue to deny him access to the submarine, despite the clear evidence that their own machinery is not up for the job.
Unlike the Thai Cave Rescue story, there will be no united world, no rescue and no happy ending. Bring tissues.