David Cronenberg’s violent history-making takes him over to our shores, to examine the Russian Mafia in London. On offer is a gritty tale of sex-slavery and vengeance and another great performance from Viggo Mortensen. Review by Roger Keen.
A Russian criminal’s history is written down in the form of tattoos on his body and without them he is nothing. So says a senior detective in Scotland Yard’s Russian Division when examining a toothless and fingerless corpse washed up on the Banks of the Thames, reminding us that despite its mainstream trappings Eastern Promises is still very much a David Cronenberg film. In fact, following on from the success of A History Of Violence, it seems a step further into the mainstream, heavily and glossily marketed, and like its predecessor steering clear of the director’s legendary sci-fi wackiness to stay within the more dependable and bankable parameters of the crime genre.
The subject is the Vory V Zakone syndicate, operating in London, and an immediate parallel is drawn with the Italian Mafia in New York, one culture transplanted into another. Thankfully we are spared the customary scene-setting shots of Westminster and the Gherkin and instead see the grungy streets of Hackney and the high brick walls of lonely alleys leading down to the river. Inside the Trans-Siberian restaurant we get the rich old world texture of Russian life – the violin music, the borscht, the champagne and the familial ties, all magnificently rendered by Cronenberg’s perennial collaborator Peter Suschitzky. But behind the scenes lurks a world of authentically portrayed violence and highly unpretty sex, as one of the Vory’s rackets is running young émigré girls as prostitutes. In American gangster parlance, to assassinate is to ‘pop’, an onomatopoeic term denoting firearm use. But there is no ‘popping’ in this world, as the weaponry of choice is cold steel, the hook-blade knife and the cutthroat razor, very much living up to the promise of that adjective.
Into this world steps Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a nearby hospital, who is herself of Russian extraction. When her patient, the distressed fourteen-year-old Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) dies after giving birth, Anna makes it her mission to track down the girl’s family and restore the baby, using Tatiana’s diary as a means. Her crusty and bigoted uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) initially declines to act as translator, and so through finding a business card she stumbles into the Trans-Siberian and the clutches of ostensibly benign restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who happens to be a Vory boss. Anna also encounters Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his driver and henchman Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whom she finds both repulsive and intriguing. It turns out that the diary implicates Semyon and Kirill, and as Semyon attempts to get it back and suppress the knowledge of its contents, Anna, her family and the baby are drawn into a web of threat.
As a character, Kirill falls into the classic mould of weak and profligate son of a patriarch, a loose cannon who constantly has to prove himself and so sets up a chain reaction of trouble. He taunts and attempts to humiliate his underling, Nikolai, but it’s clear who scores higher in machismo. Viggo Mortensen gives a superbly reptilian performance as Nikolai, his method-based research into accent, mannerisms and laconic behaviour really paying off. Under Anna’s probing questioning, he says he is only the driver: he turns left, he turns right, he goes straight on, but we and Anna sense the man had hidden depths, and of course everything revolves around him, as it did with Mortensen’s Tom Stall in A History Of Violence.
Later on, when Nikolai becomes the Vory equivalent of a ‘made guy’, part of the ritual involves an interview wearing only his underpants, so his tattoo history can be examined. Then he gets the final imprimatur of belonging – the tattooing of Vory stars on his chest and knees, the latter a sign that he kneels to no one. These scenes carry a perverse eroticism that evokes the flavour and backtaste of Dead Ringers and Crash rather than Goodfellas or The Godfather, so even though Cronenberg might be ‘doing crime’, he is still setting his own agenda here.
Gradually it becomes clear that there are two films unfolding before us. Whilst Steven Knight’s screenplay explores the issues of criminal evil and the possibilities for redemption, Cronenberg, as ever, explores the issues of bodily transformation and mutating identity. The two make a good marriage in the early and middle stretches, but later they diverge, with the director maintaining a masterful hold over the film’s visual dynamism as the story goes off kilter. The much-trumpeted bathhouse scene, where a naked tattoo-manifesting Nikolai has to fight for his life, is a beautifully balletic piece of screen violence that is worth the price of admission alone. But the denouement is disappointing, opting for a morally balanced, hackneyed conclusion that rather devalues the earlier grittiness and pulls the film in towards the conventional centre ground. One is reminded of the similarly pat ending to the Knight-scripted Dirty Pretty Things, again providing neatly wrapped solutions to complex and messy problems.
This prevents Eastern Promises from being as satisfying an overall experience as A History Of Violence, but still it carries that flame forwards and furthers the inspired collaboration of Cronenberg and Mortensen – who could be in danger of becoming a De Niro to Cronenberg’s Scorsese! And whatever its shortcomings, it remains a dazzling showcase for one the most exciting directors around, still at the top of his game, and its handful of electrifying moments will surely be essential viewing for his fans.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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