Eastern Promises (2007)
“Eastern Promises” is David Cronenerg’s 18th big film starring Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts. The script is written by Steven Knight, better known for “Amazing Grace” (2006) and “Locke” (2013), and the movie starts with a young Eastern European girl dying during childbirth, leaving her baby girl and a diary behind, which is then taken into care/examination by a nurse called Anna (Watts) in a London hospital. Upon the diary’s examination, Anna discovers that it is very probable that the young girl has suffered badly at the hands of certain individuals, which takes her deep into the seat of a London-based Russian mafia and its operation.
Cronenberg’s feature is a very neat and powerful portrayal of the London’s underworld, even though most of the time it is all implied rather than overtly presented. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) works as a chauffeur for a crime syndicate run by Semyon, who is also the owner of a popular Trans-Siberian restaurant in central London. Semyon’s son Kyrill (Vincent Cassel) is also in the criminal group, which, among other things, is engaged in human and drug trafficking. In the background of merry traditional Russian songs and Russia-themed restaurant events, we hear of gruesome back-door dealings, and in a traditionally eastern European sauna there are scenes of despicable, though exaggerated violence. In this representation, Cronenberg more than excels himself, being pretty much in his comfort zone dealing with the most perverted and darkest natures of humanity; see also “Crash” (1996).
There is also attention to detail here, for example, the tattoos. Nikolai displays a Russian church and cupolas on his back as a large tattoo, with the number of domes on the church indicating the number of prison terms received. Apart from his cupolas, Nikolai has numerous sayings, a snake with a dagger, a skull with flowers, a hot cross button and a black raven on the other parts of his body. Cronenberg himself says that, “tattoos suddenly became an intense metaphor and symbol in the movie” and they are “tied to an older Russian criminal caste with a real structure and hierarchy”. Of course, the tattoos in the movie are also “in tune” with Cronenberg’s already established trademarks: the intense preoccupation with bodily disfiguration (“Videodrome” (1983)), and people’s metaphorical (“Spider” (2002)) or literal (“The Fly” (1986)) transformation into animalistic creatures.
Undoubtedly, “Eastern Promises” is comparable to the Cronenberg’s 2005 feature film “A History of Violence” also starring Viggo Mortensen. Both movies deal with the topic of a violent, organised syndicate and its impact on an ordinary family’s life, and have gruesome, often “over-the-top” violent sequences. Interestingly, both films feature an individual who has ties to both – a “bad” underworld populated by ruthless, cunning individuals, and the world of ordinary citizenry who are committed to the idealistic notions of justice and “do no harm”, and it is this connection which is accentuated so well in Cronenberg’s films. In “A History of Violence”, we see Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), an individual who, at the first glance, appears an ordinary family man, but who hides a deep secret and an “unforgiving” dark past. In “Eastern Promises”, there is Nikolai, a man who plays on both sides of the “game”: being an almost “career” criminal, going through the Siberian gulag to emerge as a person of respect in the world of vory v zakone, while, at the same time, maintaining his post as an undercover agent for the British intelligence.
It is not only in the content in which “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” are similar, but also in the presentation and sequence. Cronenberg opens both movies with a graphic violence sequence. In “A History of Violence”, we see two men on a murder spree, while in “Eastern Promises”, there is a man being butchered right in the hairdresser’s saloon. There are graphic scenes of violence throughout “Eastern Promises”, and some say that they are almost a parody on real events, e.g. the action sequence in a Russian-style sauna where Nikolai has to defend himself against profession killers. That being so, these scenes are, nevertheless, too engaging and gripping to pass as mere fantasies given that often a hero is left absolutely defenceless, and at a complete disadvantage vis-à-vis his opposition – in “A History of Violence”, Tom has to defend himself barehanded against store robbers, while in “Eastern Promises” completely naked barehanded Nikolai defends himself against Caucasian hitmen in a sauna. “Eastern Promises” may lack the theatrical neatness, methodological approach and the exciting focus on the characters of “A History of Violence”, but, still, each scene of “Eastern Promises” is meticulously constructed, well thought-out and there is plenty of hidden tension behind every shot.
The actors contribute to the picture’s success. Viggo Mortensen fits the role well as Nikolai, the driver for the criminal organisation, who is too cool for any occasion: smartly dressed and soft spoken, he is the kind of a reserved, loyal servant any criminal band based on honour and respect would be lucky to have. Mortensen’s character is almost an opposite of Vincent Cassel’s. Cassel’s Kyrill is hot-blooded and irresponsible, and the actor managed to convey the impression just right. His Russian accent is also very far from perfect, though, in general, Russian is spoken relatively well throughout the movie. Naomi Watts cast as a caring nurse Anna is an interesting choice, initially raising concerns, but redeeming herself ten-fold as the movie progresses. Watts’s character is too good-hearted and, initially even opening up to Semyon, never thinking that anyone can do that much harm to anyone, though slowing beginning to realise the real danger that the little girl left behind is facing.
“Eastern Promises” may appear to end abruptly and suddenly without any explanation, but Cronenberg is known for his relatively short movies, and upon the second or third viewing, the film’s seemingly unfinished ending becomes more and more understandable. It is understandable in a way that it becomes clear when remembering the past dialogues of the characters what has likely happened in the end, even though the audience never gets to see the “finished product”. There is also a hint of romance between Anna and Nikolai in the end, who never quite felt indifferent to one another, and Anna, as the quote above suggests, seems to have developed a morbid fascination towards Nikolai’s cool demeanour and a sense of danger and mystery about him. Besides, Cronenberg’s ability to set the right atmosphere of the film redeems the film’s uncertain nature and open questions. In “Eastern Promises”, we taste a bit of the Russian culture: Nikolai tries to repair Anna’s motorcycle “Yral”, while Semyon serves home-made borsch to his guests, hosting a pensioner’s birthday during which a man dressed in a traditional Russian clothes sings “Ochi Chernie”, a traditional Russian table song, and guests give vodka toasts.
“Eastern Promises” may be unrealistic in some way and too exaggerated in some scenes with a very uncertain ending, but the movie is also very entertaining with good acting, flawless dialogue sequences, a neat, powerful presentation and an unforgettable dark atmosphere. 8/10