Review: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007, UK / Canada / USA)

The poster for Eastern Promises, the new film by Canadian uber-auteur David Cronenberg, carries the tagline “Every sin leaves a mark”, and a monochrome pair of tattooed hands. From most any other director, we would know what to expect instantly: a preachy, indulgent macho quasi-morality play, with about a dozen or so balletic fight scenes, and probably some gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure.

However, Cronenberg is a different, and very special, director. He knows how to play with audience preconceptions, and is adept to turning them upside-down and inside-out before, as is often the case, delivering on them. This was clearly the strategy in his previous film, A History of Violence (2005), which maintained a constant feeling of menace whilst toying with the symbolism of a quaint, peaceful Americana. That film certainly took me and many others by surprise, though this in itself should have come as no surprise. Throughout his long career, Cronenberg has specialised in making audiences feel uncomfortable, as well as challenging their preconceptions about genre.

The plot revolves around Anna, a midwife in a London hospital, who delivers a baby from a young Russian girl who dies during the process of childbirth; “Sometimes birth and death go together” as she describes later. She discovers a diary that the girl kept, and endeavours to find out the identity of the mother, leading her to a restaurant owned by Russian Mafia boss Semyon. Here, she also encounters Semyon’s violent and mentally unstable son Kirill, and Nikolai, an enforcer and driver in Semyon’s organisation. Cronenberg was keen that as little of the plot should be revealed to the audience beforehand, so I shall leave it there.

What we have in play here is a multi-layered Cronenbergian labyrinth of true and false identities. Anna is English, but with Russian parentage, and her desire to uncover the dead mother’s story is perhaps from a need to understand this side of her own identity more. Semyon appears a respectable businessman, but is actually a ruthless crime lord; his son Kirill tries to act macho and alpha-male, but is in fact a closet homosexual, unwilling to reconcile this with his exterior image. Nikolai is perhaps the most mysterious and contradictory character; he says little: “I’m just a driver”, he often repeats as his justification for his involvement in the violent activities of his boss. But who is he, and where has he some from? This is the overriding theme of the film, one which is reflected by Anna’s role as a midwife; she brings life into the world, still innocent and vulnerable, with no history or past life. The world of the Russian Mafia demands a similarly blank past from is members, denial of mothers, fathers, past lives.

That other great Cronenberg trademark, a visceral, corporeal fleshiness is also on full display here too; one particular scene in a bath-house has attracted much attention, and rightly so. There are others, too, in particular Nikolai’s “processing” of a former boss of a rival Chechen gang leader. These scenes are not Jason Statham-esque macho bravura on show, neither is it gratuitous gore-mongering; violence is shown to be just that: violent, brutal, painful, and quick.

The film is set in London, but this is not the picture-postcard London of Notting Hill or Bridget Jones’ Diary, but the London of “whores and queers” as Semyon puts it (notably, to his “queer” son). Instead we inhabit dark sidestreets, restaurants, and hospital corridors. Anna’s house is not a swanky penthouse apartment overlooking the Gherkin, but her mother’s plain but homely suburban two-up two-down. The screenplay was written by Steve Knight, notably the writer who also penned Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), also centring on a side of London not commonly portrayed in fiction. Whether or not there is the genuine authenticity of immigrant gangland London is a little irrelevant; this is a mood piece, not one which is explicitly suggesting it is based in fact.

The performances are befitting of the mood of the film. Naomi Watts is well cast as the central Anna; I am still waiting for a reason to dislike Ms Watts, but it seems her star grows with every performance. Here, she plays her contradictory character with a great depth: a mix of almost childlike innocence, befitting her job as a midwife, but also a steely resolve to find out not only the baby’s past but her own. Vincent Cassell as Kirill is not given as much to do as the other characters, so he often comes across as a bit of a stock film caricature. But the finest performance, predictably, is Viggo Mortensen as the silent, inscrutible Nikolai. Gone is the hometown all-American Tom Stall of A History of Violence; instead we have this oblique, opaque, mysterious character whose past is as blank as his permanent expression. At times it seems like he is deliberately underplaying the role, but as the narrative unfolds we discover why. There is to my mind no greater character actor working in Hollywood today than Mortensen, and it is great to see him ever diversifying his already impressive canon.

It is also great to see a director of Cronenberg’s ability and intellect at the top of his game again. I have long been an admirer of his work, from his early “body horror” films, through Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, up to his more recent masterpiece Crash. After losing his way, in my opinion, with the likes of eXistenZ, M. Butterfly and Spider, maybe he has found his niche again. It would have been interesting if he had, as proposed, gone on to direct Basic Instinct 2, but like Terry Gilliam getting his hands on a Harry Potter film, that is one combination we’ll just have to fantasise about. Eastern Promises, in the meantime, is a great, great addition to his body of work.

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