Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.27.07


Pretty, Violent Things
Cultures clash in multiculti London

EASTERN PROMISES: Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Steve Knight. Cinematography, Peter Suschitzky. Music, Howard Shore. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski. Focus Features, 2007. 100 minutes.

Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai and Naomi Watts as Anna in Eastern Promises

For some reason, it’s often far easier to write about disappointing movies than it is to write about the good — or great — ones. Perhaps there’s just more colorful language to apply to the trashy, the dull or the just plain mediocre than there is the elegant, the superbly crafted, the entrancing. It’s a challenge to come up with the proper words to describe a film like Eastern Promises, the latest from director David Cronenberg, whose last film was the solid and heavily praised A History of Violence. Here, Cronenberg is working once again with Viggo Mortensen, whose transformative abilities are remarkable. From the numerous films you probably never realized he was in to the stoic ranger-turned-king of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings to History‘s seemingly all-American father, Mortensen shifts his demeanor, his voice and his carriage but always retains a coiled strength, an unreadable undercurrent. Cronenberg and screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) wrap Eastern Promises around the actor, sticking the story to him as tightly as his character’s Russian prison tattoos stick to his skin.

Eastern Promises begins with a pair of seemingly unconnected bloody events: In a dark barbershop, a young man is forced to wield a razor; in a pharmacy, a pregnant, hemorrhaging young girl faints. Promises is a film full of brutality so widespread it seems as if every London doorway must be hiding bleak secrets, but Cronenberg doesn’t seem to revel in it; even the film’s astonishing set piece, a fight in a bathhouse, is not glee-inducing, precisely staged cinematic violence but the kind of nasty fight that puts its survivors in the hospital.

Into this world walks Anna, a second-generation Russian who encounters the bleeding girl in a late shift at the hospital where she works as a midwife. Anna’s world is familiar: quiet, simple, full of individual pain and family banter. She is a kind but restrained woman, tenacious and sentimental. When the girl’s child is born at the same time the mother dies, Anna decides to translate the mother’s Russian diary and find her family, with whom the newborn belongs.

What she finds is a different sort of family: the vory v zakone, a Russian crime organization marked, in astonishing detail, by tattoos that tell their life stories. Vory members live in stark contrast with Anna’s existence. On the one hand, murders, parties, money, lavish excess; on the other, a plain home, a cup of coffee in the morning, an ordinary job. Anna has enough of a survival sense to withhold personal information from vory patriarch Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, his blue eyes icy), whom she asks to translate the diary, but she’s too stubborn to stay the hell away from the whole gang — including their “driver,” Nikolai (Mortensen). Nikolai’s jobs for the vory are dirty, but his coldness cracks a tiny bit with Anna. A little humor seeps out; a hint of gentleness appears around the edges.

Eastern Promises feels like a partner to A History of Violence but also to last year’s underseen The Proposition, which likewise twined brutality and beauty in a twisted family story that drew on a strong sense of place for rich atmosphere. Its story never drags, its tone never wavers, but it’s refreshingly character-driven. Its themes are there, encompassing family, fate, love, necessity, trust, morality and Cronenberg’s current fascination with the role of violence in a culture — but what is most compelling about it is a blend of performance and tone. Eastern Promises is a marvel of compact storytelling: subtle, dank, fierce and beautiful.