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Eastern Promises (2007)
26th Oct 07
Innocent midwife Anna crosses violent paths with mysterious and ruthless Nikolai, a Russian gangster.
Review "Now I'm going to remove his teeth and cut off his fingers”, says Russian ‘driver‘ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), as he calmly disposes of a corpse during David Cronenberg’s much anticipated new thriller, ”you might want to look away."
We don’t of course, for this is Cronenberg territory, where to look away is to deny the transgressive delights offered by one of cinema’s finest exponents of the grisly and unwatchable. The strangest thing about Eastern Promises though, is that the moments of extreme violence often feel out of place rather than an intrinsic part of the films fabric; shocking punctuations throughout an entertaining but oddly conventional film, possibly Cronenberg’s most straightforward to date.
This Russian themed, London-set crime thriller promises much and delivers, well, a fair bit. The pleasure of seeing Cronenberg shooting outside of Canada for the first time and casting a steely outsider’s eye over unfamiliar London (including Hackney Market, Finsbury Public Baths and the old Middlesex Hospital) is undeniable and at the heart of the film is a powerhouse central performance from the director’s new muse, Viggo Mortensen.
But there are flaws that prevent this from truly delivering the expected goods. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the standard set by the director’s last film, the quietly magnificent History of Violence, was so high. But the problems with Eastern Promises lie in an overly schematic script by Stephen Dirty Pretty Things Knight that aligns very uneasily with Cronenberg’s sensibilities. It’s clearly well-researched but in terms of character and tone it’s both simplistic and uneven. What remains is a frustrating, often compelling marriage of styles and a film of individually brilliant moments.
It opens strongly – a grisly DePalma style throat-slitting in a barbers shop cutting to a 14 year old pregnant Russian girl collapsing and subsequently dying in a London hospital. Disparate moments but crucially interconnected. The girl is survived by her daughter, and leaves behind a diary that contains damning evidence against a group of Russian gangsters and sex traffickers operating in London.
Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife with Russian heritage who has had to deal with a recent family trauma of her own, is determined to unravel the secrets within the book and enlists her grandfather to translate the diary. A business card contained within its pages leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian café, run by the seemingly avuncular Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and into an inner circle of brutality. Semyon is the ruthless London figure head of the ‘vory v zakone’ gang and father figure in both a literal and metaphorical sense to loose-cannon son Kirill (Vincent Cassell) and Kirill’s stoic ‘driver’ (Mortensen).
It seems that the former body horror specialist is undergoing something of a metamorphosis himself these days. After Violence this is a further shift away from the visceral concerns of yore. But where Cronenberg used the pulpy mechanics of the Violence source graphic novel to deliver a weighty meditation on violence and trust, here his cool, morally ambiguous approach jars with Knight’s tidily generic narrative.
There is an affecting emotional undercurrent to Eastern Promises though, and credit for that must largely go to a fine cast of experienced actors, most of whom give compelling performances. Speaking most of his (few) lines in Russian and adopting a Siberian accent throughout, Mortensen is truly outstanding as the taciturn Nikolai whose quiet, silent authority contrasts nicely against the two people that he becomes most closely connected to.
Naomi as Anna is on low-wattage here, essaying a woman of quiet dignity who is simultaneously strong and vulnerable. Cassell (one of my favourite actors) fares less successfully as Kirill, and seems wildly off-key in a way I can’t put my finger on. Sinead Cusack and Jerry Skolimowoksi as Anna's mother and uncle respectively are fine, particularly Skolimowoksi, whose brusque and foolish courage provides some darkly comic moments, especially his insistence that he is old-school KGB.
As you would expect from Cronenberg there are individual scenes of great power. The scene where Kirill demands that Nikolai have sex with a young Russian girl from behind while he watches has a nascent, homoerotic charge and cements the relationship between the two men. The moment where Nikolai is finally welcomed into the family and stripped before his superiors powerfully conveys the concept of prison tattoos as criminal résumés, showing a history (of violence) that is literally written all over him. The family gatherings in the Trans-Siberia are fascinating too. Natural territory for a Scorsese or De Palma, it’s both unexpected and exciting to see Cronenberg take on this milieu of family loyalty and sentimental violence.
The bathhouse fight scene is already legendary, and with much justification. Unflinchingly brutal, its raw veracity is heightened by the fact that the principle actors performed their own stunts and that Mortensen is completely naked throughout. Surely the most vulnerable fight scene committed to celluloid, its further proof that when it comes to cinematic transgression there’s no one quite like Cronenberg.
So why doesn’t Eastern Promises catch fire overall? As I said, the script too often feels stagy and forced with some unsubtle ironies. There’s a sense that Knight wants to dovetail everything together a bit too neatly, the kind of approach you expect from a superior TV movie or series, but not a Cronenberg film. Also, too much of the narrative is all build up and a crucial reveal towards the end is delivered with a muted whimper, in a way that doesn’t really connect. Ultimately the film just feels a little ordinary, particularly for a director who has always traded in subversion.
But while it isn’t the classic hoped for, there is enough here to indicates that, at 64, this great auteur is in rude health and clearly eager for new challenges. At a time when some great directors are delivering weaker facsimiles of earlier classics, Cronenberg is still growing, refining his horrific concerns and transposing them into new and unusual settings. The man is an artist and still capable of making us feel uncomfortable in any genre, so let’s hope that for his next collaboration he finds a way to force his unique sensibility through more effectively. For now this is half a great film that hints at more tantalising promises yet to come.
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