Review: Eastern Promises

Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Steven Knight
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts
Released: 2009 / Genre: Crime-Drama / Country: UK/Canada / IMDB
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David Cronenberg is like fine wine: he gets better with age. His early genius saw his anger and obsession portrayed in his body images and visual dysfunctions of human life. His films (which fell under the sub-genre known as “body horror”) had at their core sexual frustration and experimentation, a bleak but open look at the future of life as we know it, and the type of edgy, youthful angst and creative freedom only available to young, cocky directors untainted by the Hollywood machine.

Indeed, Cronenberg throughout his career, would steer clear of Hollywood intervention – both financially and geographically. His films have remained low-budget and financed by independent production companies. And he’s shot many of them away from the allures of Los Angeles: predominantly staying in his homeland Canada or more recently shooting in England.

His early work was graphic and affecting. Many remember the exploding head in Scanners, the worm-like rape in the bath tub in Shivers, or James Woods pulling a gun out of his stomach in Videodrome. Cronenberg films are highly unique: they simultaneously examine our worst fears and our most rampant desires. He gave the world of the horror film depth largely unseen before, while developing a niche for his own psyche to be laid bare.

eastern promises, film, cronenberg, mortensen, naomi watts

But, like most youthful endeavours, Cronenberg was still learning to hone his craft in films like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. Videodrome was littered with great moments, while The Brood showed the director had style to go with his ideas. It wasn’t until 1986’s The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, that he hit the mainstream. The Fly, which married Cronenberg’s inherent fascination with the disfigurement of the human body and a bigger budget and recognised actors, put the director firmly in the minds of not only horror aficionados but movie-lovers of all kinds.

Yet I’ve always felt, aside from the brilliant Dead Ringers (arguably his best film) in 1988, he hasn’t always found a way for his characters to fully blossom amongst his more prevalent themes and symbolism. This was down to an inability to coax the best performances out of his actors, but this was more easily rectified when he began employing more experienced performers. It was a problem with his early films and has affected later films too. However, recently, with Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg is delivering his most assured work.

Eastern Promises starts in typical Cronenberg fashion. As a Russian Mafiosi is getting his hair cut in a small salon, a mentally disabled man walks in and starts talking to the hairdresser. The three men are the only people in the salon. The hairdresser asks the man to shave the customer. He hands him the razor blade. Suddenly the man bursts into rage, taking the razor to the customer’s throat and, in true Cronenberg style, slicing it from ear to ear with blood gushing, breathless detail. This is our introduction to the Russian criminal underworld in London.

Cronenberg is, however, more interested in the familial loyalties and hierarchy within this secretive world than its capitalist intentions. This is presented firstly by an unnamed pregnant eastern European teenager entering a pharmacy clutching her stomach. She says she needs help before collapsing. At the hospital, midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) battles to save the baby and its mother, but the girl dies in child birth leaving only a diary and her new born.

Anna asks her uncle – an ex-KGB agent, or so he claims – to translate the young girl’s diary to find information about her family. On chasing a link to a restaurant owned by the guarded Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Anna discovers that the information in the diary could not only put her life in danger, but the baby’s too.

It’s at the restaurant Anna meets Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai, the company’s driver. Anna is quickly suspicious of Nikolai’s intentions towards her, and since we see Nikolai disposing of the hairdresser’s dead customer, she has ever reason to be. But in protecting the baby girl she has grown so close to, largely because she herself lost her own baby during pregnancy, she must go deeper into this criminal abyss to discover if there is any future for the child.

There’s a lovely cyclical story arc to the film that Cronenberg uses as a juxtaposition of tone. Anna’s plight is driven by the new life of the baby, and her inner turmoil created by her own child’s death; which is set up directly following the death of the baby’s mother and the Russian gangster in the hairdresser’s salon. Cronenberg looks at life, the value and legacy of life when it is lost, as the root of his story.

A recurring theme is how the Russian mafia get tattoos and how each tattoo provides information about that person’s life. During an initiation scene, Nikolai strips off his clothes to show his life story through the symbols permanently painted on his body. He is then given a star tattoo over his heart to show his ascension through the ranks of the criminal underworld. Cronenberg sees this world as a way of life. Crime, greed, murder, and secrecy are simply the result of a carefully orchestrated culture built on values, familial loyalty, and honour. Perhaps most significantly, like The Godfather, Cronenberg shows that there is something to respect in that. As if the purest evil can have a heart.

It’s unsurprising Cronenberg utilises the talents of Viggo Mortensen having seen the Lord Of The Rings actor provide a measured performance in the director’s 2005 film A History Of Violence. There he portrayed a family man slowly coming to terms with the violent past he’d forgotten following amnesia. In Eastern Promises, Mortensen goes from unknowingly hiding a violent agenda to putting on a veil of straight-faced Russian charm, which under the surface, cloaks more than just the darker side of his profession. He’s at once the unwanted attention seeker of Anna’s affections while seemingly being the only person of this secretive world that wouldn’t harm her.

Naomi Watts is perfectly cast opposite Mortensen. Her good intentions are the counterpoint to Nikolai’s dirty deeds, her profession as midwife couldn’t be further removed from Nikolai’s undertaker. Watts instills in Anna a mothering devotion to finding the truth, her diminutive figure full of innocence and hope.

Anyone looking for the director’s obvious trademarks won’t have to look too hard. There’s a brilliant sequence in a sauna when Nikolai is attacked by a rival gang’s thugs: the fight shown in graphic detail with nothing hiding Nikolai’s naked body. The man, again striped of his clothes, adds the bloody scars of battle to his already decorated skin – the knife wounds becoming another indication of his life story, permanently portrayed on his body.

Eastern Promises is another terrific addition to David Cronenberg’s growing collection of films. He is still producing brilliant independent work that is now more accessible to mainstream audiences than ever before. Hopefully, Eastern Promises will be the introduction for many to his great body of work, while devoted fans will be able to rejoice in another job well done.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Ross McG Reply

    great film. dare i say it.. i still think Viggo was slightly better in this than DDL in there will be blood… would have been happy if hed won that oscar

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    Castor Reply

    That scene in the bathroom where Viggo struggles naked and kick all those dude’s asses was badass. Now, I thought Eastern Promise was a bit lacking in terms of pacing. It felt like a really long movie.

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    Rodney Reply

    This, more than Lord Of The Rings, convinced me that Viggo is indeed one of the great actors working today. An awesome film.

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    Dan Reply

    @Ross: I think performances in Cronenberg films have improved but there still seems to be a stigam against rewarding him and his films the biggest accolades.

    @Castor: That’s a great scene

    @Rodney: Definitely. A History of Violence was a perfect departure from the wholesome adventures of LOTR. Eastern Promises was a great follow-up.

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    Thomas Reply

    yes, so excellent! And the team Cronenberg-Mortensen team seems to be a terrific match. Kermode of the BBC podcast has been saying for years that Viggo M. is on his way to becoming the Robert de Niro of his time (the good de Niro, dare I add…), and it is becoming more and more true with every film (I actually do find his Lord of the Rings role a bit of an exception to this). And in the words of Stephen King: It takes a true gunslinger to fight naked! My take on Eastern Promises at the time.

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Thomas: Yeah, he’s really progressed as an actor. If he’s receiving that sort of acclaim from Kermode, he must be doing a lot of things right.

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