Film Review: Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg (Zone 4, Focus Pictures, distributed by Roadshow)
The director behind classic films such as The Fly and Scanners, David Cronenberg has earned a following in film circles for the genre he made his own - what is now known as 'body horror', psychologically
intense films centred around mutations and twistings of the human body. But even when he steps outside the body horror genre, Cronenberg's style remains unmistakable, as apparent in his shift to film noir-
slash-thriller efforts with 2005's A History of Violence and, now, Eastern Promises.
Eastern Promises swaps its predecessor's small-town American setting for the wilds of London's underworld, specifically the activities of the Russian mafia. Stumbling into this netherworld is midwife Anna
Khritrova (Naomi Watts), who discovers a diary written in Russian on the body of a nameless girl who has died in childbirth on her shift. In an effort to find the newborn's relatives, Anna passes on the
diary to seemingly charming restauranteur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), not realizing that it tells a horrific story of sex slavery and abuse which directly implicates Semyon, in reality a local kingpin of
the Russian mafia. He promptly assigns chauffeur and promising henchman Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to resolve the matter, setting in motion a bloody chain of events which few survive and even fewer escape
with clean hands.
Where A History of Violence required Mortensen to keep his character's bloody abilities concealed (however briefly), Eastern Promises sees him wearing those powers on his sleeve as. With steel-grey hair
slicked back over his astonishing skull, Mortensen's appearance and mannerisms as Nikolai positively radiate menace. Nikolai also bears extensive tattoos that tell the story of his criminal career to the
educated observer – one memorable late scene sees him face his examination for 'lieutenant' before mob bosses stripped to the waist, as they read his history from his flesh. Maybe we're not so far from
Cronenberg's fascination with transformed bodies after all. Eastern Promises also confirms Cronenberg's status as a master choreographer of violence – like few others, Cronenberg can embed bloodshed in his
characters and in the setting of the film and makes it matter. You'll be horrified and disgusted, but you won't find a gratuitous moment.
But it's Mortensen who really holds the film together, displaying an uncanny ability to convey tenderness and awful menace at the same time, and well deserving of his 2007 Oscar Best Actor nomination for
this role. Watts makes an ideal foil for Mortensen, and puts in a solid performance in a supporting role, but doesn't quite lift the role to the heights it could have offered. Mueller-Stahl's turn as Semyon
mixes affability and dread to great effect, aided in no small part by his incredible, piercing eyes; Sinéad Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski offer fine performances as Anna's English mother and Russian uncle,
with Vincent Cassell rounding things out nicely as Semyon's revolting, drunkard son Kirill.
That peculiar Cronenberg feel makes this less of a gritty underworld drama and more of a film-noir fairytale – a proper dark fairytale, with plenty of heart-stopping danger and grisly incidents along the
way. Its hybrid nature mightn't satisfy either noir purists or Cronenberg aficionados, but it's a fine piece of filmmaking regardless, and confirms its director as still having a few surprises up his sleeve.
The Zone 4 DVD is short on special features, with just two brief but interesting mini-features, 'Marked for Life' and 'Secrets and Stories', but the feature itself is done justice with 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby
sound and a fine crisp 16:9 widescreen image. Recommended.