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Eastern Promises Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImageA few years ago, David Cronenberg made “A History of Violence,” starring Viggo Mortensen. It seemed to be a deviation from the well-regarded Canadian director, formerly a specialist in distinctive horror movies. But “Eastern Promises,” also with Mortensen, is similar to “History,” as it’s also a layered, deeply felt story of crime and criminals. In its storytelling, it’s more mainstream than Cronenberg’s usual films (although “The Fly” was straightforward as well), but few mainstream movies have characters this rich while still being occasionally as gruesomely violent as Cronenberg’s less, um, sophisticated fans want. It’s an outstanding movie, one of the best of 2007, and Mortensen fully deserved his best actor Oscar nomination.

Set in London, “Eastern Promises” opens with scenes of a barber, Azim (Mina E. Mina), slashing the throat of a customer, then a young woman hemorrhaging in a chemist shop. The script by Steven Knight and Cronenberg’s unflinching view of brutality and blood set the tone. The young woman dies giving birth; Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, takes charge of the baby, and finds a diary among the dead woman’s belongings.

She wants to be sure the dead woman’s relatives learn about the baby, so she seeks to have the diary translated—it’s written in Russian (or perhaps Ukraine; this is not clear). Anna lives with her mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) and casually racist uncle Stepan (director Jerzy Skolimowski), both from Russia, but she wants an outsider’s help.
Meanwhile, we see Kiril (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) dispose of the body from the barber shop. Nikolai is relaxed, controlled, drily witty; Kiril is impulsive, crude and emotionally stunted.

Anna approaches apparently genteel Russian restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Kiril’s father, to help with the translation. Semyon lives in an urbane, old-fashioned environment; his dark-toned restaurant offers lavish buffets, children play violins. It’s subdued, sophisticated—and corrupt.

Nikolai, so tough he puts out cigarettes on his tongue, is directed to drive Anna home from her meeting with Semyon when her small motorcycle malfunctions. She tries to talk to him, but he coolly brushes her off. “I am driver,” he explains. “I go left, I go right, I go straight ahead. That’s it.” Anna is frustrated at being unable to find out much about the dead woman, whose name she does learn—she was Tatiana. Nikolai dryly admits he knows lots of Tatianas. But he does warn her—“Stay away from people like me.”

Bit by bit, Anna learns more about Tatiana. Meanwhile, Nikolai has to tell Semyon that his son Kiril is a “kveer” (queer). Semyon knows something is wrong with Kiril, and that Kiril engineered the murder in the barber shop. We see without being told that Semyon is the head of London’s branch of the Russian/Ukrainian Mafia—the Vory z Zakone (“thieves by the code”). Despite his sophisticated manner, he’s a heartless tyrant, and had a close enough connection with Tatiana that he wants to get his hands on her baby.

Nikolai is questioned by Semyon other Vory z Zakone leaders about his criminal credentials—which, as he’s in his underpants during the inquisition, are pretty much depicted on his body in an elaborate set of tattoos, very important in Russian Mafia circles. “In Russian prisons,” someone says, “your life story is written on your body in tattoos. If you don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist.”

When Azim learns that the barber victim has murderous brothers, he also discovers that Kiril arranged the murder without Samyon’s knowledge. And he is much more frightened of Samyon than of the vengeful brothers.

As we learn more about Nikolai and see that he is, almost against his will, drawn to protect Anna from the forces aligning against her, but some of those forces are coming to bear on him.

This leads to the movie’s best-known scene, a spectacular battle in a steamy, tiled bathhouse between a completely naked Nikolai and those vengeful brothers. It’s exciting, brilliantly edited and so well-staged that it sets a new standard for hand-to-hand combat scenes. Unlike most such scenes in movies in the last ten years or so, it owes nothing at all to the acrobatic battles in Asian martial arts films. It’s entirely it’s own thing—swift, brutal and bloody, with every impact depicted so vividly you can almost feel them. In the high definition print on this DVD, it’s even better; you can see all of Mortensen’s tattoos, you can practically see every hair on his muscular body. There’s an almost palpable sense of the hot, steamy environment of the bathhouse.

Mortensen has always been a serious actor. When I interviewed him on the set of “Leatherface,” he was wearing an apron—required for the role—and verged on seeming absurd. But his direct, open honesty and his serious approach to his work retained his dignity. For his role as Nikolai, he traveled by himself across Russia to Siberia—without knowing the language—where he met with real members of the Vory z Zakone, and learned about the culture his character came from. He sent a book on Russian prison tattoos to Cronenberg, who shared it with Knight; it changed the screenplay. This kind of dedication to a role is very rare; I think Cronenberg knows just how valuable an actor Mortensen is.

Cronenberg and Knight give the movie a slow, careful and detailed buildup, with much of the important material being depicted rather than explained. You need to pay attention—rare in a movie that actually has very few surprises. But your attention will be rewarded. “Eastern Promises” is an unusually submersive movie—you’re taken to the damp, wintry streets of urban London, guided through the tightly-knit Russian Mafia underground. It’s an almost hypnotic movie, well worth seeing.

It’s a shame that movie this thoughtful and well-made doesn’t have a commentary track and more extras than it does, but there you go. It does have two featurettes; “Secrets and Stories” is the making-of documentary, featuring Cronenberg, Mortensen, Mueller-Stahl, Cassell (who’s actually French), Watts and writer Knight. This is a particularly good documentary of its type, because the people interviewed are unusually thoughtful and intelligent. Tatoois Oleg Fedoro, who has a brief role in the film, appears in both “Secrets and Stories” and “Marked for Life,” a shorter documentary on Russian prison tattoos.

“Eastern Promises” is one of the few movies about the criminal organization of the last 30 years to owe nothing to “The Godfather.” It’s an original look at a particular area, at people whose entire lives are subsumed in criminal activity. Anna is really the only outsider; the movie doesn’t have a distinct plot line; instead, it’s Anna’s journey through the underworld, and how Nikolai exists in it. It’s a tough, grim film, but it’s about tough, grim people.

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