David Cronenberg has a habit of approaching things from oblique angles. Whether it’s in a horror movie, like Videodrome, or an adaptaion of a graphic novel, like A History of Violence, he never quite delivers what we expect. In his latest film, Eastern Promises, he takes Steven Knight’s story of a nurse, a baby and and London’s Russian Mafia and produces an unexpectedly subtle and intriguing film.
Eastern Promises opens with two horrific events: a throat slashing and a young pregnant woman who begins to hemmorage as she asks a drugstore pharmacist for help. The slashing is a minor event that leads to retribution – and establishes one character as being something less than competent and another as being very competent indeed. The hemmoraging girl, who dies in childbirth, sets off a series of events that leads to significant revelations about all the film’s major characters.
The nurse is Anna [the luminous Naomi Watts], who looks through the baby’s mother’s purse looking for an address so she can identify the next of kin. Through the diary, she is led into the orbit of London’s Russian Mafia – led by Semyon [Armin Mueller-Stahl], a gourmet chef/resteraunt owner/doting grandfather, who is also one of the most vicious gangsters ever brought to film [he makes Marlon Brano’s godfather look like a true gentleman].
Anna also meets Nikolai [Viggo Mortensen], the mob driver who is both more and less than he seems – and Semyon’s son, Kirill, who has three strikes against him in his father’s eyes. Kirill may be an alcoholic incompetent, but there are some things he won’t do, as we learn later. Nikolai is the character who manages to surpise at every turn.
Semyon comes to trust Nikolai over time; Anna trusts him almost immediately. Maybe it’s the way he fixes her moteorcycle – or is there something behind his eyes when he warns her not get to involved with his world? Or perhaps it’s just that she hasn’t seen how he disposed of the dead man referenced earlier.
Then there’s the diary – it’s in Russian, of course – and Anna, who is a second-generation immigrant doesn’t read or speak it. It’s this that causes all the problems, for it’s when her mother [Sinead cusak] and uncle [Jerzy Skolimowski] refuse to translate it, that she finds herself meeting Semyon.
Beyond this very slight look at the plot and slightly more intensive look at the characters, we will not go. There are revelations that cannot be divulged without spoiling the entire film – even the trailer is unusually circumspect in this regard. Suffice to say that Cronenberg makes the script’s turns and twists riveting.
What matters is that Eastern Promises is one of Cronenberg’s best films [which is saying a lot]. Mortensen and Watts are at the top of their game and Cronenberg’s study of the whys of situations [as opposed to the mere mechanics] leads us to wonder how far we would go to do the right thing in such circumstances – all the while entertaining us with his dark humor, intense characterizations and moments of explosive violence [the brutal sequence in the bathhouse will likely be used to illustrate how, when properly used, violence of such ferocity can add extra dimensions to both plot and character – not to mention freaking out the audience!].
Final Grade: A