There’s no denying director David Cronenberg’s dark artistry; it’s been apparent throughout his career, from Scanners and The Fly to Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. But in shelving the sci-fi-horror elements of his earlier works he’s delivered two of his finest films: 2005’s A History of Violence and now, Eastern Promises.
A chilling peek inside London’s Russian underworld and the sinister characters that populate it, Eastern Promises reunites Cronenberg with History of Violence star Viggo Mortensen and once again their chemistry works. Mortensen delivers a brave and astounding performance as mob driver Nikolai Luzhin, who rarely speaks but is always thinking and in control, even when he’s taking orders. He’s capable of brutality, but every so often his expressions hint at a softer side – in a way it’s a reversal of Mortensen’s History of Violence character Tom Stall, soft-spoken on the surface but concealing a violent past.
Naomi Watts costars as midwife Anna Khitrova, who crosses paths with the Vory V Zakone criminal organization after finding the diary of a teenage mother who dies after giving birth. The child survives and Anna, who was recently pregnant but lost the baby, takes an interest in finding the little girl’s relatives. She asks her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the journal’s Russian text while she finds a business card for a restaurant tucked inside its pages and goes there for clues about her identity.
At the lush Trans-Siberian, a front for the Eastern European crime syndicate, she meets mob boss Semyon (a frighteningly good performance by Oscar nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose oversized sweaters and charming manner reveal little of his true nature. He seems only mildly interested in Anna’s story about the young girl, until he learns of the diary. That’s when his nefarious intentions begin to show through. The journal’s horrifying revelations aren’t brought out into the open all at once, but there’s a good chance they involve the hard-drinking, always-on-the-edge son of Semyon, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and possibly Semyon himself.
As Anna searches for the truth, at her peril, she attracts the interest of Nikolai, whose loyalty to the Vory may not be as clear cut as first thought. In fact it’s hard to know who’s loyal to whom throughout Cronenberg’s film and a scene in a bathhouse where a naked Nikolai is the victim of a surprise attack is one for the ages. Give Mortensen credit for agreeing to be completely buck for this sequence, because what we’re looking at isn’t sexy and Hollywood-lit – it’s gritty, grimy and extremely savage.
Based on Steven Knight’s (Dirty Pretty Things) story, Eastern Promises is a taut thriller that, thanks to Cronenberg’s sensibility, doesn’t ever get too melodramatic. The violence is graphic, but not out of place given the subject matter, and the budding relationship between Nikolai and Anna never overshadows the central plot. The director is aided by excellent performances from the entire cast, notably Mortensen, Mueller-Stahl and Cassel.
Cronenberg is making some of the most intriguing and thought-provoking films of his career right now – concerning that all-important question of whether humans can change their nature. One hopes he continues in this same vein, because the results have been nothing short of brilliant.