Traditionally, I have not liked the films of David Cronenberg. While I greatly admire and respect his independent vision, there’s something about the bulk of his pictures that has always felt distant to me. In reviewing the critically acclaimed A History of Violence, I compared Cronenberg’s films to porcelain dolls in glass cases – obviously very precious to the director but somewhat sealed off from the audience. I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of overt ways in which his latest, Eastern Promises, is different, and yet its impact on me was far greater than anything else Cronenberg has ever done. There is a solid human element at the core of this movie that is never overstated. Then again, it doesn’t have to be. Its mere inclusion makes the director’s attention to detail and atmosphere carry more weight. The legions of Cronenberg fans will easily love this picture; I suspect he could win over some converts as well.
Set in London, Naomi Watts (my personal favorite actress) stars as Anna, a midwife working at a local hospital. When an anonymous young teenage girl fatally hemorrhages while delivering a baby, Anna dedicates herself to looking after the infant and trying to reconnect it with relatives. She also discovers the girl’s diary, written in Russian. Hoping to get some clues, she looks for someone to translate it, and ends up showing it to a local restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He’s also the patriarch of a well-connected Russian mafia family living and operating in London. Something in the diary disturbs him, and Anna suspects that he may try to harm the infant. Her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) translates it simultaneously, eventually confirming to her that the girl had ties to the Russian mob as well as a dirty little secret they’d certainly like to keep buried. Instead of letting it go, she continues to demand that Semyon provide her with the contact information for the baby’s next of kin.
Through her dealings with the aging criminal, Anna becomes acquainted with Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the family’s driver, who hopes to get a promotion into the official ranks. When Semyon and his unstable, drunken son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) try to threaten or intimidate Anna, he intervenes. She is not sure why he’s nice to her. It would seem to be an unwise move, especially since he wants to advance. Nikolai lives and operates in a brutal, violent world, yet he is not fully the ruthless fiend Kirill wants him to be.
In this plot description, I have made it seem as though Anna is the main character when, in reality, it is Nikolai. I am saying less about him to preserve some of the movie’s surprises. You no doubt can assume that he gets involved in helping Anna, but it doesn’t happen in quite the way you expect or for the reasons you anticipate. This is really his story because he appears to have conflicting desires; moving up in the ranks requires a lot more insensitivity, yet he seems somewhat unwilling to surrender his basic humanity.
And there you have the heart of Eastern Promises. Yes, it sounds like a genre picture, and while it undoubtedly has many genre elements, it’s really more of a meditation on what happens when decent, ordinary people bump up against the criminal lifestyle - and vice versa. Nikolai, realizing that Anna is trying to do right by the dead girl and her baby, keeps pushing her away when she gets too close. By all demands of his job, he should offer to kill her and the baby, then destroy the diary. He doesn’t because Anna has no part of his world, and shouldn’t. She is nothing more than a kind person trying to do the honorable thing. She has no business getting wrapped up with the kind of people he associates with.
Much of the movie shows us Nikolai dealing with the day-to-day details of the job. The idea is to slowly, methodically show us his morality. When questioned by Anna, he repeatedly shrugs off knowledge of illegal or violent activity by saying, “I’m just the driver.” He knows more than he lets on, and he’s more capable of violence than we first realize, as evidenced by an amazingly brutal steam bath fight scene late in the story. Nikolai has reasons for wanting to advance (which we eventually learn) but at the same time, we can sense that he is ambivalent about much of the behavior he is required to tacitly condone.
Eastern Promises is different than a lot of movies dealing with the mafia, American or otherwise. It is not a movie filled with big speeches or moments of high drama. Instead, it is an incredibly subtle examination of how morality forms and changes through experience. It asks whether decency and nobility can exist side-by-side with malfeasance and immorality, and whether one can rub off on the other.
With outstanding performances from Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in the key roles, this theme slowly gets under your skin. This is definitely a story that allows the actors to create full-blooded characters in a story that prizes human motivation. It’s also a chance for Cronenberg to employ his trademark examination of the repercussions of explosive violence. Eastern Promises is not just one of this year’s best films, it is also my pick for the best David Cronenberg movie to date.
( out of four)
Eastern Promises is rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Eastern Promises
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