David Cronenberg steps back into the gritty underworld following immense success with A History of Violence (2005) to deliver another satisfying slow burner. It marks a continuing shift away from his once-famous visceral fascination with the flesh and delves further into a more subtle approach to his screen interests. Apart from one scene destined to be crowned another Cronenberg classic, Eastern Promises simmers with fine performances and a glossy exterior to its dark centre.
At the heart of Eastern Promises is Viggo Mortensen who re-teams with Cronenberg after an impressive turn as a husband who is forced back into his shadowy past as a killer in A Histroy of Violence. Here he starts on the bad side from the beginning as Nikolai, a mysterious driver to one of London’s most notorious organised Russian crime families. He spends most of his time looking after the son of mafia boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl): the unreliable and hyperactive Kirill (Vincent Cassell). When Kirill arranges for the death of a rival without Semyon’s consent, it is only a matter of time before problems arise, but they are complicated by the death of a 14-year-old girl from childbirth. On her body Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, finds a Russian-language diary which she gives to her Russian father to translate. When it leads her to Seymon, she begins to discover the dark core to his family’s dealings.
In a dramatic set piece Nikolai fends off would-be assassins naked in a public bath.
Cronenberg is best known for his twisted and gory movies such as The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988) and Videodrome (1983) where flesh is manipulated or dramatically transformed by dark desires. In Eastern Promises the darkness is more hidden inside the characters as we hear of the teenager’s rape and witness glimpses of the Russian family’s dealings with prostitutes. In a dramatic set piece Nikolai fends off would-be assassins naked in a public bath that brings the violence to the fore, and while it is the most memorable scene in the film, it is one of only a few occasions when Cronenberg lets rip with some body horror. The majority of the film delves into the realms of trust and mistrust.
In this respect, Cronenberg adopts a relaxed approach to the handling of Steven Knight’s screenplay. Anna’s home life is focused on her father’s desire to hide the contents of the diary from his daughter while she desires to understand its true meaning. In forcing him to translate it, she unwittingly puts him at risk from Seymon who finds out he has been reading the allegations against him within. However, Cronenberg resists focusing closely on this plot strand, instead concentrating on Nikolai as he wins the trust of Seymon and is tattooed with the marks of the family. Why the director does this only becomes clear in the final third as his clever pacing of the seemingly loose ends tie up very nicely to bring a character-driven pay off rather than a crowd-pleasing finale that A History of Violence could be accused to have resorted to.
Eastern Promises is not perfect. There are a few holes in the story that become clearer on reflection rather than at the time of watching, Cassel verges on pantomime at times, the Russians can seem stereotypical and its slow pacing is sure to lead to unrest from some. However, it is an effective thriller which will be well remembered, if not for its harsh fight scene, then as Cronenberg’s second successful foray into the gritty underworld.