Following closely on the heals of A History of Violence, David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen teamed up again to make a mobster thriller. Yeah, I know labelling Cronenberg films like that is an utterly pointless exercise, but that’s what the film was being marketed as, so there. This made Viggo Mortensen one of the few actors to star in a Cronenberg film twice, joining the great Jeremy Irons in that exclusive category. Does the dream team strike gold twice?
In actuality, the setup is far more complex than merely a ‘Cronenberg/Mortensen’ joint. There is a very large cast for this film and most of the characters are provided with interesting and critical plotlines. Early in the film, which is set in London (quite a different setting of all a sudden for a Cronenbeg film), a young teenage and very pregnant girl enters a pharmacy and starts haemorrhaging. She’s quickly sent to the hospital, where Anna (Naomi Watts) and her team perform an emergency birth. Sadly, the girl dies giving birth, but remarkably the baby survives. To deepen the intrigue of the situation, Anna discovers a personal journal in the girl’s purse. The mother was obviously Russian, and while Anna herself does not read the language, her uncle, with whom she is currently living, does. Her uncle is reluctant to tell Anna what has been written in the diary, but Anna’s desire to solve the mystery of the child gets the better of her, and when she finds a small business card for a Russian restaurant inside the pages of the book, the first thing she does is pay them a visit. Her meeting with the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is but the beginning of a dangerous venture into the London-based Russian mafia. The true secret behind how the child came to be is quite sick, but through it all there is an emotional light that we don’t often see in a Cronenberg film.
One of the crazier members of this section of the Russian mafia is Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a spoiled brat of a man who takes most woman for whores (primarily because that is the kind of women he meets). Vulgar, a drunkard and enjoying the privilege of power, he is not a man to tease around with. There is another character of note in the film however, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). While he isn’t a member of the family, he works closely with the Semyons and becomes particularly close to Kirill by the end of the movie.
I’ll not give away anymore details about the plot, and I hope I haven’t given away too much already. Eastern Promises is a film that relies heavily on plot, probably more so than any other Cronenberg film. There are many details to all the main and side characters (of which there are several), and it was in fact only during my second viewing of the film that I had fully wrapped my head around it all. Giving away more of the story and I’d be spoiling the fun of discovering the twists and turns the story takes. Trust me, they’re worth it. Much like with A History of Violence, I felt that the ideas and themes of the movie were movie were mostly found in the actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as their place in the story as opposed to the overall plot of the film meaning something. Consider the situation Anna finds herself in. Shortly after the tragic opening sequence, it is revealed, through a dinner conversation with her family, that Anna lost her baby in childbirth. This nightmare led to the destruction of her relationship with her now ex-partner. Essentially, she is staying with family until things start looking up again in her life. Oddly enough, another woman’s tragedy, the death of the girl at the beginning, may offer a ray of hope for Anna, a chance to become what she has wanted to become for some time already: a mother. One mother loses her child, another child loses her mother. Naomi Watts is one of the best English-language actresses working in film today. She always gives solid performances in emotionally heavy films. Her characters often experience difficult and troubling emotional challenges, and she seems to excel when presented with the challenge of acting out those emotions and stories. Needless to say, she doesn’t disappoint here. Her place in the film is arguably the most interesting (not that I’m taking anything away from Kirill’s and Nikolai’s stories). The plot itself has some very, very dark undertones, especially when the secret about the baby is shared, but Anna is the bright spot through it all. Her back story is nothing but tragic, as are the circumstances of her current one, but we know that the payoff, if she can obtain it at all, would be blissful. I was desperately rooting for her to succeed and get that baby to become a mother, not because that’s ‘what a woman’s place is’, but because that’s what she wants, deserves, and is fighting off all the danger of the Russian mafia for.
Nikolai, as Kiril’s right hand man, is another character of great interest. He also carries a great secret with him, although it has nothing to do with the baby. When his truth is discovered, it makes his place in the film all the more curious. What was his relationship with Kiril when he entered their clan and what does it mean at the end of the film when Kirill becomes the chief? Is he still really himself, functioning for the very purpose he arrive in the mafia for, or is he slowly losing himself in the organization? Kiril himself, as the overtly brash and even brutish son waiting for power to be bestowed upon him, carries some emotional resonance. His early scenes only hint at a malice, an evil glee about the character. It becomes more and more obvious, as the plot moves forward, that it is Semyon who may be the true evil person of the bunch, even though the latter’s soft spoken exterior would belie that fact. Of the two, Kirill and Semyon, it is Kirill who would be the first to feel genuinely guilty of any wrong doings that may have been committed, not Semyon. All three actors, Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl, give solid performances. Mueller-Stahl has such a kind way about him as an actor, that is really is a bit of a shock when the viewer learns that he may be the cruellest man of the bunch.
Whenever actors adopt a considerably different accent from their natural one to play a part, there are always complaints flying left and right about how terrible they sound. I may be tone deaf or something, but I rarely get annoyed with actors adopting accents, unless it is blatant. Neither Mortensen nor Cassel are Russian, nor did they speak Russian when hired to play their parts. However, I never felt this hindered their performances. My own circumstances have led to me meet many Russians and hear them talk in English with a Russian accent as well as simply hear them talk in Russian. Both Mortensen and Cassel sound great to me. Even Mortensen’s Russian is rather authentic. I guess some people just enjoy complaining about that.
It wouldn’t really be a Cronenberg film without some good old blood and gore, and while Eastern Promises doesn’t deliver bucket loads of either, it is quite explicit when it serves up at least some. There are a couple of throat slitting murders that were enough to have me hold my neck in fear and, of course, there is the now famous bathhouse brawl in which Mortensen’s Nikolai much fight off two huge Russian thugs that have been sent to eliminate him late in the story. Much has already been written regarding that scene, and I therefore do not have much to add. Suffice to say that few action film heroes experience fist and knife battles that even close to the grittiness and violence of the one featured here. When the characters are been cut open by the knives, it really is difficult not to cringe. What’s more, the sequence is well choreographed and shot, something I always demand when experiencing an action scene. Those of you who have read some of my earlier reviews of films involving spectacle and fights know that already.
This last review in the marathon may seem a tad shorter than usual, and it is. Eastern Promises is the most recent of all the films I’ve analyzed so I decided not to spoil so much, unlike in most of the other reviews I’ve written. I also think it is the most character-driven of the director’s movies, so I would simply feel cheap by giving away everyone’s stories. I think I’ve even hinted at a couple things already to get readers guessing. There are a couple of things I do want to mention before I conclude this review. First is that I find the tone of the movie to be quite different from the rest of Cronenberg’s material. I completely stand by my view that the story, no matter how dark its tale, holds a thin string of hope, a thin ray of light throughout. That shinning light is Anna’s presence and determination to uncover the truth and save the motherless child she met at the beginning. It’s a tremendously noble and brave act on her behalf and I think that adds genuine emotion to the proceedings. It’s not that none of Cronenberg’s previous film ever had emotion (The Fly is an excellent example of a film that really did have a lot), but that hasn’t happened terribly often in the man’s filmography. I think for that reason, Anna is one of my favourite characters of all those featured in Cronenberg films, which is interesting given how she is one of the very few true leading female characters he has ever used.
The second is that Eastern Promises is a very respectable venture into the mobster/gangster genre for the director. So often he made films that very much fit into their own categories. Granted, this being a Cronenberg film, one shouldn’t expect it to be solely about the mob and gang rivalries, and it isn’t. However, of all the movies the director has made, this is certainly one that can, theoretically, be fit into a well established and mainstream genre. He doesn’t turn the genre on its head, but nonetheless succeeds in telling a compelling story with worthwhile characters within it. We can’t expect Cronenberg to strike gold every single time, but Eastern Promises, while perhaps lacking a bit of originality, does what it sets out to do very well.
*I did have a spoiler filled review planned, so if anyone wants me to post that one, just leave a comment!