David Cronenberg, famous for making seminal headfuck flick The Fly in 1986, burst back onto cinema screens about five years ago, releasing A History of Violence and Eastern Promises within two years of one another. Both starring Viggo Mortensen as a more-than-meets-the-eye protagonist, the former received mixed responses – some lauding it as his best work, others deriding its plot – but the latter was far more evenly received, most critics praising it as an unflinching modern-day gangster thriller which should be roundly praised. Me? I’m not so sure.
The film follows midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) as she tries to protect an orphan born at her hospital: the child’s mother was a prostitute who was forced to work for the Russian mafia, and the mob don’t want the secrets of her diary to get out. Anna has the diary, but feels a connection with the child and doesn’t want to cross gangster boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s ‘driver’ Nikolai (Mortensen). But unfortunately, she can’t elude them, and the more she learns about their activities, the more panicked she becomes…
Cronenberg’s movie, set within the grubby confines of London in which Guy Ritchie usually operates, follows Anna’s attempts to escape the attentions of the mafia – they want the diary, she wants justice for the child’s mother. In places, the cinematography recalls Ritchie’s fantastic Lock, Stock – the focus is on realism and authenticity, London’s streets are uniformly grey – and recent TV shows like the BBC’s Luther. It’s not an uncommon portrayal of the Big Smoke, thus much of the film seems a bit too familiar: chases down alleyways, dumping bodies in the Thames etc. etc. However, it’s an apt rendering of the town given the film’s content, and its outlook which is fairly pessimistic.
The film alternates between English and Russian (along with the occasional spurt of Arabic) and looks behind the curtain of mafia activity, in this case the restaurant the mob is using as a legitimate front. The violence is pretty up-close-and-personal, from an associate’s throat being cut on screen to a fabulous sequence in a bathhouse. Occasionally, the film does lurch into sensationalised territory, notably in its grim sex scene and liberal use of claret, but generally you feel it’s necessary and fitting not to pull punches in a film so fixed in the real world.
As for Mortensen, it’s difficult to think of him on better form. His Nikolai is a fully-fleshed, intricate character who steals the show scene after scene. Whether cutting the fingers off a dead enemy or talking motorcycles with Anna, you never question his past, motives or reality: Nikolai’s tattoos depict his past, and Mortensen’s fakes were so well-researched and accurate people dodged him in restaurants if he didn’t wash them off after a day’s shooting. Also important to note is a great turn by the always-fantastic Vincent Cassel, whose Kirill alternates between petulant rage, overpowering jealousy and conniving malignance, and an excellent performance from Watts, who complicates Anna’s motives brilliantly, making us question whether she’s on a moral mission or a selfish one.
However, despite these strengths, there are problems with Eastern Promises, notably in its plot. As with many thrillers it’s crammed with plot twists, but rather than fully exploring each, they rush by in a flurry of clues. Of particular annoyance to me was a late twist on Mortensen’s character, which felt very shoehorned in and was only addressed for a couple of minutes. When it happens, you’d think its importance would merit more screentime, but alas this is not the case.
And this labyrinthine plot isn’t aided because the film never seems sure of what it wants to be. In turn it comes across as a tragedy about lost innocence, a mob flick, an unlikely romance and a family drama. Admirably, it tries to juggle them all, but it drops the ball a couple of times as the movie progresses.
The interesting family dynamic of mob father-and-son is all broad brushstrokes – he’s a waster, father feels ashamed and so on – and the really intriguing prompt to the story (the exploitation and enslavement of underage Eastern European girls as prostitutes) is just used as a springboard for the problems facing Watts’ Anna. When these girls are being so frequently and ruthlessly exploited, her problems really seem insignificant. The message of the film’s opening is that this kind of crime is endemic and needs to be stopped, yet the entire movie is spent bemoaning the misfortunes of a single woman who seems to search out trouble: see how she returns to the restaurant to berate the gangsters even after the matter is over, for reasons which don’t seem entirely magnanimous, rather selfish.
It’s a very uneven piece, all told. When Eastern Promises leans on its actors or action it’s excellent, when it does so on the plot it creaks like a Victorian floorboard. Scenes between any combination of Cassel, Watts and Mortensen are excellent, the bathhouse scrap verging on virtuoso, but the movie’s overly contrived sequence of twists undercut all its good work and make it ultimately underwhelming.
6/10: Almost like a Guy Ritchie film without the tongue-in-cheek humour or quality of plot, Eastern Promises is nothing if not exceptionally grim, but were it not for a trio of excellent central performances it would languish amongst poorer contemporaries. Despite having enough ideas to propel itself along, it suffers from having too much plot with not enough exposition. Worth watching for its excellent acting triumvirate, but lacks the intelligent intricacy to be anything approaching a seminal effort.