Film: Eastern Promises
Director: David Cronenberg
Primary Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
U.S. Release Date: 14 September 2007
After a recent wave of Viggo Mortensen thirst, I decided to finally get around to watching Eastern Promises. Before watching it, the only Cronenberg film I’d see was A Dangerous Method. While I did enjoy aspects of that film (mostly those related to Fassbender and Mortensen), it also left me with a nagging suspicion that it didn’t quite live up to it’s potential. Eastern Promises, on the other hand, did not. No, the film isn’t perfect (it’s script, in particular, has some real flaws), but it’s strengths far outshine it’s weaknesses. Yes, it’s a shame that it falters in places at all, but it’s good qualities are good enough to more than make up for most of it’s problems.
Eastern Promises is a grim, unsettling, brutal, and darkly sexy film that features a fantastic performance from Mortensen, overcomes a few overly sentimental hiccups, and ultimately makes for memorable and engrossing ride.
Setting the Scene
Anna (Watts) is a midwife at a London hospital. One night while she is working, a 14 year old Russian girl named Tatiana dies in childbirth. Anna finds a diary in the girl’s bag; hoping to find the names of relatives who she can contact about the girl’s baby, Anna takes the diary home so that her Russian uncle can translate it for her.
Anna also finds a business card in the diary which leads her to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is run by Semyon (Mueller-Stahl), who is also the head of a Russian organized crime family. Seymon urges Anna not to share the diary with anyone and to let him translate it instead.
Meanwhile, Semyon’s son Kirill (Cassel) has recently arranged to have one of his acquaintances killed behind his father’s back. Kirill is almost always to be found in the company of the family driver, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen).
The Use of Violence
Though those who have seen more of Cronenberg could probably say more about this topic than I can, one of the most notable aspects of the film is its use of violence.
Though it isn’t violent for it’s full 100 minute running time by any means, Eastern Promises is a film that makes sure to get the most mileage that is can out of each and every instance of violence that it includes.
Despite the abundance of career criminals that it features, Eastern Promises doesn’t contain a single gun. It prefers knives, fists, and razors instead. Violence in this film is visceral, personal, and even intimate. Cronenberg does not shy away from the reality of flesh and blood; in fact, he embraces them (that one of his characters is forced to fight completely naked emphasizes this fact quite strongly).
Such an interest in flesh and in the physical nature of violence is also reinforced by the notable prevalence of tattoos in this film. In fact, when one character asserts that a man without tattoos might as well not exist, that may be Cronenberg’s way of saying that, when it boils down it, we aren’t much more than damaged flesh at the end of the day. On the other hand, it may be that by equating a man’s entire existence with a sort of physical violence, that Cronenberg means to elevate violence in some way.
The film also takes it’s time with violence, and, in doing so, it forces viewers to carefully look at that which they would normally never have to see. Even the most action-packed scene never feels rushed; in fact, like much of the film, it may even come across as deliberately drawn-out. This same scene is also the most memorable of the film; it’s the sort of scene that you want to see again as soon as the film is over and that you tell people about for days.
Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin
Eastern Promises is a well-acted film all around, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show. His performance alone makes this crime story/ character study worthwhile. Though Mortensen himself is no Russian, he (unlike Knightley in A Dangerous Method) accomplishes to disguise that fact quite thoroughly. Mortensen disappears into his role and is certainly the film’s greatest strength. As Nikolai, he mysterious, terrifying, complex, and alluring all at once. Nikolai is a memorable, fascinating, and incredibly layered. Viggo breathes life into him beautifully and is undeniably magnetic whenever he is on screen.
As I’ve already indicated, Eastern Promises is a film that takes it’s time with its violence; it also takes it’s time with it’s plot more generally. Eastern Promises never feels like it is in a hurry, and it’s deliberate pacing and confidence help to keep viewers interested in what the film has to say even after the credits have begun to roll.
The film reveals what it has to reveal slowly, deliberately, elegantly, and with a deft hand. For the most part, this is a movie that shows instead of tells, and it’s better for it. While Eastern Promises is a crime film, it’s much more about it’s characters than it is any single illegal or violent action.
Though the film is set in London, it’s easy to forget that this is the case. It doesn’t feel like it’s set a metropolis teeming with culture and life; rather, it feels like it’s set in a small, dark, claustrophobic, and markedly colorless world all it’s own. When Anna’s mothers says, “This isn’t our world. We are ordinary people,” the film seems to agree with her. The world in which people like Nikolai and Kirill and Semyon operate is not the world of the Anglicized Anna; it’s the world of those from another place, who operate according to a very different set of rules.
A Few Weaknesses
Nearly all of Eastern Promises‘s problems stem from it’s script.
For instance, the instances in which Tatiana’s voice can be heard reading from her diary contribute nothing positive to the film and should not have been included. They are overly sentimental and detract from the dark and rather grim tone that Cronenberg’s direction seems to want to achieve.
Some of the film’s other lines of dialogue also come across as overly sentimental in nature. Such lines are awkward, and feel out of place.
Additionally, while I understand the narrative reasons for the baby’s presence in the film, I would have preferred for it to have been replaced with some other plot device. Babies simply don’t make for interesting characters. In a film populated with well-developed and complex people, I found the baby to be an unfortunate distraction.
Until Next Time
Like the tattoos that cover so many of it’s characters, Eastern Promises is a film that gets under the skin. Despite some narrative shortcomings, the film has an impressive ability to make an impression. And though the film is interested in a number of topics that have found their way onto the big screen many times before, the whole thing manages to feel new and original all the same.
I know that I don’t usually write extended reviews for movies that are more than about a year old, but since I liked this film as much as I did, and since I haven’t watched many movies lately, I went ahead and wrote this anyway. Hooray.
Thank you so much for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or by contacting me on twitter. I’d also appreciate recommendations concerning which of Cronenberg’s films I should try to watch next.