Dir: David Cronenberg US/UK/ Canada , 2007. 96mins
A brutal, yet surprisingly tender thriller about Russian gangsters in London, Eastern Promises sees David Cronenberg once again displaying the sign of a true auteur - someone who can take seemingly uncharacteristic material and make it entirely his own. Written by Steve Knight, Eastern Promises comes across as very much a companion piece to Cronenberg's last film A History of Violence, not least in that it again stars that film's lead Viggo Mortensen - there an ambivalent hero, here a sombre heavy who gradually reveals unsuspected dimensions.
Taut Hitchcockian narrative and terrific performances all round, together with direction that shows Cronenberg at his most classically controlled, should give Eastern Promises a mainstream appeal beyond Cronenberg's long-standing auteur and genre followings. Festival slots in Toronto, San Sebastian and London - which it opens on October 17 - will confirm the film's status as a prestige title, and a likely contender in 2008's awards season.
After a brisk opening that sets the keynotes of violence and betrayal, the story starts with a distressed teenage girl staggering into a London chemist's. The girl is taken to hospital, where she dies giving birth to a baby girl. The only clue to her identity is a diary in Russian and the address of a Russian restaurant. Playing detective, concerned midwife Anna (Watts), herself half-Russian, goes to the restaurant where avuncular proprietor Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) promises to help her translate the diary.
But Semyon is the godfather of a Russian crime syndicate based in London, and knows more than he's telling about the girl's tragic past, which is delineated in poignant voice-over extracts from her diary. Anna's attempts to solve the riddle, and to ensure a future for the orphaned baby, are closely watched by Semyon's hard-boiled henchman Nikolai (Mortensen), who meanwhile has a tense and rivalrous relationship with Semyon's boorish son Kirill (Cassel).
Eastern Promises is very much of a piece with A History of Violence, in which Mortensen's regular small-town hero proved to have a psychopathic criminal past. Here, Mortensen's character - a smoothly sinister hood from the start - proves to have another kind of secret. Once again, the key theme is the thin line that separates middle-class normality from a hellish underworld: a theme developed with biting comedy in the helpless complacency of Anna's mother as she professes horror at the things she's learning: 'This isn't our world. We are ordinary people.'
Cronenberg buffs will note a new spin on his 'body horror' thematics: a leitmotif of Russian criminal tattooing, in which a hard man's identity is etched on his body. There's a terrific set piece of choreographed roughhousing, a fight in a steam bath with a naked Nikolai tackling all comers. A homoerotic subtext also emerges in the relationship between the two younger hoods: when Kirill demands Nikolai prove his heterosexuality by screwing a hooker in a brothel, Nikolai not coincidentally chooses one who's the spitting image of Anna.
While the film is Cronenberg through and through, with regular collaborators including DoP Suschitzky and designer Spier, it's also very much a follow-up to screenwriter Knight's successful Stephen Frears venture Dirty Pretty Things - another politically-informed picture of contemporary London as a brutal jungle in which immigrants struggle to survive. Cronenberg manages to situate the story in a very recognisable present-day city, while making London as claustrophobically unfamiliar as in his 2002 film Spider.
A touch of stylisation in the look of the characters - notably, Mortensen's somewhat comic-strip hood, with his shades and sculpted hair - emphasises the gulf between Anna's legit reality and the dark side inhabited by Nikolai. A pithy ending at once gives the story an emotionally satisfying resolution and an understated tragic dimension, concisely evoked in the final shot.
Acting is spot-on, with Cassel refining his Russian thug from Jez Butterworth's Birthday Girl, Mueller-Stahl making a chillingly jovial don, and Watts downplaying cannily as a determined compassionate heroine. Veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski also makes a pugnacious impression as Anna's cantankerous Russian uncle.
Serendipity Point Pictures
Focus Features International
David W. Thompson