There was a time when the name David Cronenberg was synonymous with low-budget Canadian horror schlock that resorted to hiring an ex porn actress for marquee value. Thankfully, those days are long behind this gifted director who has matured into that rare blend of commercially viable cinematic artiste. With his last few films, Cronenberg has set out to probe the secrets that people keep. Whether they be the secrets of an ill mind, as in 2002’s magnificently haunting Spider, or those of a sordid past (A History of Violence) or, in his most recent undertaking, Eastern Promises, the omertà of the London-based Russian mob.
Starring Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai, the chauffeur/bodyguard of a Russian mob captain (Vincent Cassel) who is also the son of the local Don (played by the brilliantly restrained Armin Mueller-Stahl), Eastern Promises tells the story of Anna, a British midwife (Naomi Watts) who finds herself caught up an escalating mystery when she tries to track down the relatives of an underage Russian prostitute who died during childbirth. Armed with the young girl’s diary that detailed her liaisons with members of the Vory V Zakone Russian criminal brotherhood, Anna’s altruistic quest eventually leads her into a hornet’s nest of prostitution, smuggling and drugs which places her, her mother, Russian-émigré uncle, as well as the surviving infant, in mortal jeopardy. Along the way, the story feeds off the ambiguity surrounding Nikolai. Is he Anna’s only saviour, or yet another cog in a well oiled and bloody machine.
Unlike most crime dramas, Eastern Promises doesn’t so much concern itself with the goings on of a crime syndicate as it does with probing the inner machinations of the characters that comprise the gang. Cronenberg is careful to hone in on human vices, the evil of the human heart, and the fears and passions of ordinary people living ordinary lives. He also knows how to deliver a brutal fight scene that will sear itself into the memories of viewers for a long time to come. By the time the credits roll, the audience will have witnessed a story that is as compelling as it is violent, and yet strangely reaffirming - undoubtedly exactly what Cronenberg set out to achieve. Yes, he’s come a long way from the days when he traded in exploding heads and parasites emerging from armpits, and cinema is much richer as a result.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey *** For such a violent film, Eastern Promises is bizarrely sentimental. That's not the only imbalance on display. There are two towering performances within, from Viggo Mortensen and Armin Mueller-Stahl, which, while impressive, only serve to make the lead, Naomi Watts, appear so bland as to be transparent. And the story itself goes after so many targets it fails to really nail any one element, and leaves too many characters as badly drawn mobster cliches. It's certainly not boring — come on, it's Cronenberg — but after A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a little disappointing. The running theme is, basically, nothing is what it seems and Cronenberg ladles that on throughout. Sometimes, as with a particular twist we won't reveal, it works to jaw-dropping effect. Mostly though it feels like so much cliché. Things are enlivened by the quite astonishing violence and a naked fight in a sauna for Mr Mortensen that is cold, brutal and impressively nasty. Talk about brave: okay, they're fake knives and staged punches but even so, combined with the cold floors, marble walls and bare dangly bits, it's a very courageous bit of acting.
Mortensen is tremendous, prowling through every frame, and he's more than matched by Mueller-Stahl's controlled menace. Watts — usually so impressive (and she's amazing in the remake of Funny Games) — is left floundering in comparison, although that probably says more about Steve Knight's screenplay and her underwritten role than it does about Watts' abilities. Eastern Promises is certainly a curiosity and, as mentioned above, is certainly not boring. But entertaining? Essential viewing? As well made as it is, that would have to be a no.