Issue September 25, 2007

Film Review: Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises     3 stars
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Sinead Cusack. Directed by David Cronenberg. Released by Focus Features. Rated R; 1:40.

    Director David Cronenberg is now well entrenched in his new career as a respectable, semi-commercial filmmaker — no mean feat for a guy who’s best known for exploding heads and phallic weaponry. It’s not unheard of for misfit B-movie auteurs to make the jump to the mainstream (even the King of Trash John Waters pulled it off), but Cronenberg’s transformation has been more satisfying than expected, with little backlash from his fan base. We may never have another “Videodrome,” but he will still be giving us good movies.

    His last film, “A History of Violence,” was excellent. His new one, “Eastern Promises,” is good, but not quite on the same level. Perhaps it’s the push and pull of larger-budget egos, but “Eastern Promises” is really three movies in one: Cronenberg’s thriller, actor Viggo Mortensen’s character study and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight’s rumination on immigration and psychology. The result is an occasionally tedious movie filled with stunning, devastating moments, but overall, lacking in cohesion.

    The first third of the film belongs to Knight’s exploration of a seedy, underworld London. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife who witnesses the death of a teenage prostitute during childbirth. She leaves behind a daughter and a diary, and Anna takes an interest in both. The diary — in Russian and being translated by her uncle — leads her to a mob-owned restaurant. There she meets a succession of shady mafia types, including Mortensen’s Nikolai, a cool-headed driver and all-around thug. He watches as Anna tries to find the baby a home, in turn delving deeper into the Russian underground and exposing her to the violence at the heart of the immigrant community.

    For Knight, this mystery is an excuse to continue the themes he outlined in “Dirty Pretty Things,” a film about undocumented refugees preyed upon by illegal organ traffickers. Both that movie and “Eastern Promises” focus on immigrants with no legal status and therefore no legal protection. Immigration laws provide the wealthy countries with a pool of desperate and uneducated bodies who can become sweatshop workers, drug mules or sex workers.

    Much of the rest of the film is Mortensen’s, who revels in Nikolai’s icy persona. He slowly reveals Nikolai’s motivations with a series of physical changes: When we first see him, he’s in a suit, hair slicked back, sunglasses on, with a sly, knowing smile. Before the end, we see him naked and tattooed, fighting frantically for his life. It’s smart work, but it contributes relatively little to the themes set out by Knight.

    Despite this push and pull, Cronenberg has made a good movie. Although he started out as a stylish horror/sci-fi director, his violence is now painfully realistic. In one now infamous scene with a nude Nikolai fighting off knife-wielding assassins, Cronenberg presents a profoundly sad picture of the human animal: naked, desperate and clawing for survival. The violence is bare, repulsive and convincing. The film-maker has made his career out of on-screen violence, but he reminds us here that we should have nothing but contempt for the real stuff.

BY ALAN ABBOTT
leo@leoweekly.com