Eastern Promises (2007) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel
“Eastern Promises” is Cronenberg’s second consecutive success in what currently is his ‘mainstream years’. For good reason it made a stir at TIFF this year. It’s a tight story about the intriguing milieu of Eastern European gangsters in London. The unique collection of global talent – Canadian, British, Aussie, German, French result in familiar story executed with an unfamiliar tone. It’s a terrific film.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a British midwife, who works in a London hospital. She’s recently separated from her boyfriend, miscarried a child and has moved back home with her mother. Fate lands on Anna when she performs an emergency delivery of an unknown 14-year-old pregnant Russian girl. The girl dies in labour, but the baby survives. The only form of identification on her is her tattered diary written in Russian. Anna is compelled to search out the identity of the girl and find the true family of the young infant.
This search leads her to the head of the Russian mob in London – Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). In her dealings with Semyon, she befriends one of his new mob soldiers, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who takes orders from Seymon’s firecracker son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). A subplot about a murdered Chechnyan runs the same course as Anna’s journey. The two collide resulting in an unlikely union between Nikolai and Anna.
“Eastern Promises” keeps a steady pace, slowly revealing to us a complex tale of family, culture, broken dreams, loyalty and sacrifice. The film is told from Watts’ point of view. Her relationship with her old world conservative Uncle speaks to all audiences who’s had to reconcile old familial traditions with new world liberalism. Uncle Stepan knows the dangerous world of the Russian mob from his youth in Communist Russia. But his conceited attempts to protect Anna only results in her further alienation.
The power of the film is in Viggo Mortensen’s quiet but commanding Oscar-worthy performance. Nikolai is an intelligent and internally calculating mob soldier. He starts out as a lowly driver for the hot headed Kirill, but his courage and loyalty sees him promoted - similar to ‘being made” in the Italian mob. The prison tattoos etched on Nikolai’s body tells his life story. Prison time is a rite of passage for the Russians and the ultimate test of true loyalty to this way of life. And Nikolai’s body reads like a Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”.
Production Designer Carol Spier and her design team create a dirty elegance to this shadowy world. Viggo’s hairstyle, sunglasses and costume tell us exactly who Nikolai is without the need for expository character-establishing banal dialogue. Viggo’s accent and mannerisms are pitch-perfect for the character. And a few key silent glances outside of his steely demeanour and some carefully chosen camera angles tell us there’s more to Nikolai than just an ordinary thug.
As expected “Eastern Promises” is gory and tough. The violence is sudden and shocking, and sometimes, in its extremity, morbidly funny. Nikolai and Kirill’s disposal of the Chechnyan body is a prime example. I grinned at Viggo’s line to another less-callous mobster as he’s about to prepare the body for disposal, “You may want to leave the room now.” Nikolai’s workmanlike technique is disgusting but also funny.
Writer Steven Knight, who also wrote another ethnic-influenced London mob film, “Dirty Pretty Things”, writes with a confident command of the screenwriting formula. But he and Cronenberg keep the tone and dramatic reveals in check to prevent it from over-emoting and overstating itself. Cronenberg and Wright foreshadow the events in the third act with the deft touch master filmmakers.
There are a lot of big-picture themes simmering throughout the film. Though not explicitly stated, the film is essentially about the broken dreams, or “promises” made to young Eastern European girls who come to the West in search of a better life, and the young girl who died giving birth symbolizes this. Anna, as a second generation immigrant, knows this which makes her journey the compelling through line that elevates the film over and above a salacious body count gangster film. Enjoy.