Eastern Promises

October 30, 2007

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A sharp tale of crime and violence, Eastern Promises again has David Cronenberg pulling no punches. For over thirty years now he has been making films that really test his audience, most often their stomachs, and this one is no exception. 

His first film to be shot in England, Eastern Promises is the story of a half-Russian, half-English hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) trying to find out where the young, deceased mother of a newborn baby came from. The girl’s diary leads Anna to the Trans-Siberia restaurant, out of which a Russian mafia family run drugs and people trafficking. The owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) invites her in, letting his volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and enigmatic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, superb) run the odd jobs.

These Russians are part of the Russian mafia gangs known as the Vory V Zakone, a family-orientated group for whose main attributes of acceptance tend to be violence, immorality and immunity to pain, and at a further remove human emotion. Where this film succeeds is showing just how human these people are. Semyon immediately becomes the surrogate father figure she clearly has needed for some time.

“It shows that this man, though he lives and breathes a life of crime, can use his undoubted manipulative skills not only to protect Anna from the horrible truth, but also to comfort her own misfortunes.”

Not long ago Anna miscarried, and has since split up with her black boyfriend and father of her child, which is the subject of a scene between Anna, her mother (Sinead Cusack, as good as ever) and her uncle, whom I shall describe as “opinionated”.

The intelligent script by Steven Knight, who wrote the similarly themed Dirty Pretty Things, is tailor-made for Cronenberg. Though he is best known for his interest in bodily horror, all of his films have underlying looks at identity, family, sex and death – which are surely the reasons why we watch films in the first place. Why does Anna persist in trying to find the poor girl’s roots? Is she really that committed to her work? Or are her maternal instincts getting in the way of necessary judgements? Certainly she is curious of the situation, but it’s her naivety that initially drives her.

Where the film is most successful, perhaps unsurprisingly, is in the graphic scenes of sex and violence. Cronenberg is unparalleled at making a sex scene very erotic yet so uncomfortable – Crash and A History Of Violence are prime examples. Kirill demands that Nikolai has sex with one of the many foreign prostitutes holed up in their quasi-frat house/brothel in order to show him that he is a real man. Afterwards, whilst Nikolai dresses, the girl lies naked and speaks in a dreamy tone. It’s voyeurism at its most painful, and moving. There are a couple of very nasty throat-slitting moments, but the film’s most shocking scene is when Nikolai is attacked in a bathhouse by two knife-wielding assassins. It’s extraordinarily brutal, with Cronenberg clearly in his element. Nikolai literally fights with them to the death, gloriously naked thus displaying his array of tattoos. “In the vory v zakone, if you don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist,” remarks one police detective identifying a body. We even see Nikolai receiving stars on his shoulders and knees (the latter signifying refusal to kneel to anyone). In the bathhouse, it is clear for all to see.

The performances are all very good, even if Cassel almost goes over-the-top. Watts is brilliant, more restrained than her turns in Mulholland Drive and 21 Grams, revealing bravery and strength as she travels deeper into the underworld. It is Mortensen however who really steals the show, not just believable but powerful, enigmatic and riveting to watch.

Eastern Promises isn’t quite as good as A History of Violence, where Cronenberg managed to pull off the feat of adapting a graphic novel without losing any of the style or smarts, yet keeping it away from the mainstream by injecting a dash of indie oddness. In Eastern Promises the earlier scenes don’t quite gel, but the story and sense of danger will pull you through.

THE CRUNCH

4/5  shameless mutilations

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