Friday 16 May 2008

Eastern Promises (2007)

Friday 16 May 2008
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Steven Knight

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Khitrova), Vincent Cassel (Kirill), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Jerzy Skoliowski (Stepan), Mina E. Mina (Azim), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Donald Sumpter (Yuri), Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse (Tatiana), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana, voice) & Igor Outkine (Accordionist)

A British midwife helps deliver a Russian woman's baby, before she dies in childbirth. Then, after translating the mother's diary, she finds herself investigating how she was victimized by the Russian mafia...

A second team-up between auteur David Cronenberg and new muse Viggo Mortensen after A History Of Violence, in a story from writer Steven Knight that (like his Dirty Pretty Things script) again concerns London-based immigrants. But the foreigners lurking in the shadows are far more frightening here...

Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a British midwife with paternal Russian lineage who delivers a Russian woman's baby just before she dies. With the orphaned child safe – and eliciting maternal feelings in Anna after her own miscarriage -- she takes it upon herself to translate the mother's diary, and is shocked to discover that Tatiana was a prostitute abuse by a clique of Russian gangsters. Could one of them be the baby's father?

Her investigation into the circumstances of Tatiana's pregnancy and death brings her to the "Trans-Siberian" restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a boss of the vory v zakone ("thieves in law"/Russian mafia), who runs his business with the help of irresponsible son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Semyon is eager for Anna to drop her investigation, but she's determined to find the baby a suitable home and grows close to Kirill's hard-faced driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) – a mafia "fixer" who helps dispose of dead bodies in the Thames for the family, but who seems to have a sensitive side...

Eastern Promises plays like a low-hum fairy tale, with Anna entering a hidden world that's a finger-scratch below the surface of modern-day London. It's dark, menacing and foreboding vision of a very real subculture, which doe-eyed Anna willingly steps into purely to get some sense of justice -- resolved by the words of a lonely, doomed hooker, and her innocent child who deserved better.

But while Watts plays the plucky antagonist, the film belongs to Mortensen as Nikolai: reptilian-skinned and dead-eyed, with a pale and athletic body that tells his nefarious past in inky tattoos. It's a mesmerising performance of raw charisma that's impossible to resist and leaves you marvelling at every turn. Nikolai's the favourite "son" of Semyon (if not by blood) and Mortensen's particularly adept at keeping you unsure where his character's loyalties lay. Right now, the Cronenberg/Mortensen love-affair is second only to Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe – and yet to put a foot wrong.

As you'd expect in a Cronenberg film, there are scenes of visceral violence and graphic bloodletting, but it's mostly confined to a bravura sequence in some steamy Turkish baths, where Nikolai (fully naked) is attacked by Chechen assassins. In the believability stakes, it's the Saving Private Ryan D-Day landing of fist-fights, and there's a masculine artistry in seeing naked men brawling for their lives.

There's good support from Sinead Cusack as Anna's English mother Helen and Jerzy Skoliowski as her Kiev-born Uncle Stepan, who help her translate Tatiana's diary but grow fearful Anna's in over her head as the unsettling details emerge. Cassel makes a strong impression as wayward son Kirill (all swagger and cocksure grins), with Armin Mueller-Stahl giving an impressive performance as his aging, disappointed father Semyon.

Overall, Eastern Promises is a brilliantly moody crime thriller with an accurate depiction of London's underbelly (you can almost smell the blood, rain and semen), and uniformly excellent performances -- especially from Mortensen's lizard-like henchman. Watts acquits herself very well (returning to her childhood English accent), by providing the much-needed spark of humanity, and the simple plot nicely fractures to become more complex, before culminating in a surprising twist and satisfying end.

Focus Features
100 minutes