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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

EASTERN PROMISES (2007) - David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen first teamed up with the excellent 2005 comic book adaptation, A History of Violence. Their follow up, Eastern Promises is very much a companion piece to the previous film. Both films are about morally ambiguous men. Both delve into the criminal underworld. And both feature sporadic, and quite graphic violence, that will make some viewers uncomfortable. And like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is one of the top films of the year of it’s release.

Set at Christmas time in a dark, wet corner of London, Eastern Promises opens with a graphic murder that sets the dark tone of the film. We are then introduced to Anna, a midwife in a hospital who helps deliver the baby of a dying 14 year old girl. Anna discovers the girl’s diary, which is written in Russian and therefore unintelligible to Anna. In the diary, Anna finds a business card for a Russian restaurant. She meets with the restaurant’s owner, Semyon and requests he translates the diary. Unbeknownst to Anna, Semyon is one of the heads of a Russian crime family. His son, Kirill is a psychotic gangster who may be connected to the dead girl. Kirill’s driver and essentially, his keeper is Nikolai. Nikolai proves essential to the family, but is still an outsider. He and Anna form a bond, but through her search for the truth behind the death of the young girl, Anna finds herself getting too close to the dangerous family.

Eastern Promises is a superbly layered, brilliantly paced and impeccably performed piece of cinema. Cronenberg, known primarily for his horror movies, again tackles a film that deals with violent family drama, and the question of identity and masculinity. One of the central themes is addressed by tattoos. They are integral to those within the crime family, identifying who you are, not just within the crime organisation, but also as a person on the whole. But the tattoos are also plot devices that play an important part in key scenes.

The performances in the film are all fantastic. Naomi Watts’ performance as Anna is the audience’s door into the crime world, and she handles the role very well. In a film that deals with masculinity, it would be easy for her role to become secondary to the rest, but she brings a strength and vulnerability that is essential for the role. Armin Mueller-Stahl as the father figure and head of the mob family is also excellent, initially warm and fatherly, but hiding something darker and more dangerous. Vincent Cassel throws himself entirely at the role of Kirill. He’s a brilliant lunatic. It’s a difficult role, that of an alcoholic and closet homosexual, and it would too easy for an actor to fall into cliché, but Cassel is a good actor and avoids these traps.

However, the outstanding performance is from Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen’s known for immersing himself completely in his roles, and it’s clear from this performance he’s done it again. Nikolai is an incredibly complex character, and Mortensen is able to portray all the layers of this character, the darkness, the cynicism and the ability for violence without remorse, without having to overplay the character. Nikolai moves very methodically but with a lot of restraint. It’s to Mortensen’s credit that he carries across all the complexities of the character without overacting.

As mentioned, Cronenberg is known for his horror movies. And while both A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises are thrillers, they deal with horrors men can visit on each other. The film is sporadically violent, and very graphic when the violence appears. But it’s never gratuitous. It moves at a very deliberate and steady pace, gradually drawing you into the violent world of the gangsters. A film that deals with identity, masculinity, and twisted morality, it’s a film populated by monsters with human faces. Cronenberg has delivered the perfect companion piece for A History Of Violence. Unfortunately, like his previous film, Eastern Promises more than likely won’t do well come awards time. However, it’s a brilliantly crafted, superbly performed thriller, and probably the best of the year so far.


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