Saturday, November 30, 2013

From My Collection: Eastern Promises Movie Review

I sort of remembered Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s film about a woman who gets mixed up in the dealings of the Russian mafia in London, as a much more significant movie the first time around. The stakes felt much higher when I saw it on its initial run in cinemas. Maybe this is a movie that really loses something once you know who is who and what their real motivations are. When you don’t know what’s coming, the film really feels dangerous because the Russian mafia might do anything to anyone at any time.


Naomi Watts plays Anna, a midwife who delivers a baby to an unidentified teenage mother who dies in delivery. She steals the girl’s diary, written in Russian, in the hope that it may contain some clue as to her next of kin so the child doesn’t win up languishing in the foster system. One bad decision leads to another, so instead of letting the police handle the case, she brings the diary to her Russian-speaking uncle Stepan (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), who at first refuses on principle to look at the belongings of a dead person. Her investigation leads her unwittingly into the lion’s den, the seat of power of a local mafia chieftain, Semyon, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Semyon is soft-spoken and grandfather-like, but there’s an underlying sinister aspect to him. We suspect very early that he’s not what he seems and, when he asks if she always works at Trafalgar Hospital, that he has nefarious motives. Likewise we assume his driver, Nikolai (an electrifying Viggo Mortensen), a man who has obvious designs to movie up in this world, has the power to kill without emotion. But there is a genuine softness behind hi s hard exterior, even if he blithely cuts the fingertips off a dead body to make identification difficult and aid his partner and friend, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the son and heir apparent of Semyon, and a man who can’t work hard enough to win the respect of his father. Until we find out who Nikolai is, his menace is palpable. When he threatens Anna’s uncle, we fear for his safety and lament the very dangerous decisions Anna has taken.

Mortensen’s performance is equally as powerful as his mild-mannered former hit man in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence from two years previous. Nikolai is like a continuation of Tom Stall, the extension from a formerly violent, now introverted, family man to a man trying to pretend at the opposite. Instead of a man with violence in his bones who passes as normal, he’s a good-hearted man at his core who has to commit violence to pass in the world of the mafia.

Cronenberg makes this story a continuation of his obsession with the way human flesh tells stories and how the body interacts with foreign objects. As is his usual style, we are treated to several fleshy intrusions – in this case knives in throats, eyeballs, and the back of a skull. But in Eastern Promises, because he’s dealing with the Russian mafia, tattoos become an important storytelling device. The tattoos mark their bodies, the ink one with their flesh, telling the stories of where these characters have been and what they’ve done. They symbolize whether or not an individual should be accepted, like the way battle scars make a soldier more defined. He’s actually paid his dues and doesn’t just talk the talk.

Steven Knight’s screenplay has a few credibility-defying moments, beginning of course with the idea that Anna would fail to involve the police in the death of the girl or turn over the diary. Also, the resolution to her story and the baby’s perhaps demands a little more satisfaction in terms legal process. But I’m willing to forgive these minor quibbles given that his story is really about different types of families and the loyalty therein and the way our sense of right and wrong is helped into definition by other members of our family. Nikolai is like a brother to Kirill, who is also something of a stepping stone to greater things within the organization – or family. The prostitutes who are imported from Ukraine are without any sense of belonging or family and are expendable to these people, except to Nikolai, who treads the line between two very different moral universes. It’s a truly humanist screenplay, interested in the moral implications of the criminal underworld and human sex trade.

Cronenberg’s direction is concise, keeping what could easily have been a much lengthier film to a brisk 100 minutes. He presents a London little-seen in the movies. Here it’s a city of dark and murky streets away from the hustle and bustle of the trendier and more tourist-friendly avenues. He is, to some extent, an odd choice of director for the material, given his track record of strangely discompassionate points of view and grisly violence and horror. He directs one scene that should make the record books: a bath house knife fight in which Nikolai, completely nude, fends off two would-be assassins. It’s a ferocious scene, expertly directed and controlled, with a performance at the center that could hardly be considered more vulnerable.

In spite of my more ambivalent reaction to the movie this second time, it still deserves recognition as a daring piece of cinema. It breaks with so many traditions of the gangster crime film and presents something wholly original. It was, and still is, a surprising work from a director who experienced a great renaissance in the mid-00s.

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