Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises

****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Any movie that can elegantly and believably squeeze a birth and two deaths into the first five minutes has my attention; when it’s directed by David Cronenberg and shot with the unflinching muscularity of a top-of-his-game Scorsese, I’m hooked. Add a frequently unclothed Viggo Mortensen, a transgressive plot and the scariest Russian since Raskolnikov, and Eastern Promises is the classiest ‘B’ movie to appear in a very long time.

I say ‘B’ movie because Cronenberg, that supreme master of form and flesh, is a director who’s unable - or unwilling - to release himself from the prison of biology. It’s why we love him, but it’s also why his characters struggle to escape their director’s obsession with raw physicality. The intellectual frissons that flicker around his best movies - Videodrome, The Fly, A History of Violence - owe more to the intelligence and efforts of their stars than Cronenberg’s intentions; neither James Woods nor Jeff Goldblum has ever been capable of artistic passivity.

Copy picture

With its underworld themes and ambiguous protagonist, Eastern Promises plays like a companion to A History of Violence, even if the tension between Steven Knight’s heavily allegorical script and Cronenberg’s between-the-eyes execution leaves Mortensen more isolated than ever. Here he plays Nikolai, the long-suffering driver and wing man to Kirill (the supremely versatile Vincent Cassel), the loose-canon heir to the London branch of the Russian mob.

Operating out of the Trans-Siberian restaurant - an ornate den where sodden exiles sing about the old country and weep into their borscht - the family, headed by patriarch Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), run drugs, hoard prostitutes and conduct arcane rituals. These latter, stunningly shot by Cronenberg in cult-like gloom, lend the film an almost supernatural quality and a depth missing from the script. He clearly views these people as a separate species, as foreign as the creatures in his sci-fi movies and every bit as destructive.

When a 14-year-old Russian prostitute named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) dies while delivering a baby, her midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), blunders into a world she thinks she understands. Stealing Tatiana’s diary, Anna sets out to find the baby’s father, motivated by her own Russian heritage and a recent miscarriage. Ignoring the warnings of her foul-tempered uncle Stepan (played balls-out by the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), she stumbles onto Semyon’s radar and hit list, with only Nikolai looking like a friend. Or is he?

Set in London’s rain-soaked December streets, Eastern Promises uses Anna as audience surrogate but the film is really Nikolai’s. In black overcoat, shades and leather gloves, he’s either an impassive drone with big ambitions or a sensitive soldier sickened by his boss’s cruelty. The miracle of Mortensen’s performance is that we never know; the clues are hidden in the cleft of his chin and the tilt of his perfectly-coiffed head. Whether chopping off someone’s fingers (watched with relish by Cronenberg’s camera) or shadowing Anna, Nikolai is a magnetic ghost. The Russians don’t call him “the undertaker” for nothing.

Like his script for Dirty Pretty Things - also set in London’s underbelly - Knight’s screenplay hovers around the trade in immigrant bodies and the exploitation of the powerless. The homoeroticism, however, is all Cronenberg’s, not so much subtext as actual text. In an initiation ceremony, Nikolai stands, near-naked, before a seated row of elderly capos while they appraise his full-body tattoos and rippling muscles. And in another, deeply insinuating scene, he performs doggy-style on a compliant young girl while Kirill watches. Even the film’s poster features a close-up of Nikolai’s hands covering his groin.

But it’s the movie’s most infamous, and most extraordinary scene that really seals the deal. On the slick tiles of a near-deserted bathhouse, Nikolai fights for his life against two knife-wielding assailants protected only by the aforementioned tattoos. It’s an astonishing, four-minute ballet of extreme vulnerability and artful camera angles. ‘Pause’ buttons everywhere are primed for the dvd release.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2007
Share this with others on...
Eastern Promises packshot
An idealistic young midwife inadvertently stumbles across a crime syndicate trafficking prostitutes.
Amazon link

Read more Eastern Promises reviews:

Anton Bitel ***1/2
Paul Griffiths ***1/2
Chris ***1/2

Festivals:

London 2007

Search database: