David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is like a photo-negative of The Godfather. There are gestures of politeness and the family dinners within the big crime family but this film peels them away to examine if there are such things as loyalty and morality at all. And it also deserves the high praise and comparison with Francis Ford Coppola’s classic.
What distinguishes this film from other violent crime thrillers is its introduction of a person of decency into the story. She is Anna (Naomi Watts), a dedicated midwife in London who has just delivered a baby from a Russian teenage girl named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), whom she discovers was a victim of prostitution. The girl dies and the midwife sets out to find someone to translate a diary the girl left behind.
Led by a flyer left within the diary, she knocks on the door of the last person she should have asked, Semyon, who runs an expensive restaurant as well as a Russian mob family. As played by the great Armin Mueller-Stahl, the man is courteous to her but rarely has courtesy seemed so threatening and frightening. He kindly requests (really demands) her to hand him the diary so that he can translate it because, of course, it contains incriminating evidence about his kin’s dealings in illegal prostitution.
The other two key players in the story are Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen with a convincing Russian accent), who will remind many of the sons of the Corleone family and more recently the crime family portrayed in Road to Perdition. The former is so much a loose cannon that it is doubtful he will become a proper leader if he does not self-destruct first. Nikolai is Semyon’s “driver” and a violent thug, too, but more reticent and aware of upholding the code of loyalty in the mob. It becomes clearer that Anna’s safety and trust may depend on his examination of his own values.
The plot contains far more intriguing turns that I must not even hint at. What I will say is that the screenplay by Stephen Knight (who wrote Dirty Pretty Things a few years ago and Amazing Grace earlier this year) is ingenious in constructing its psychological suspense. The eventual revelations in the story are not based on actions and reactions but on peering unblinkingly into the clashes and turmoil of personalities and motivations. It is also about how a woman of goodness calls the bluff of the genial pretense the criminals often put up.
The director David Cronenberg, who is best known for his earlier creepy, Gothic horror films, has made another impressive, realistic examination of a violent world following A History of Violence. Some have criticized him for detaching himself too much from the material but I consider it a singular merit. Cinema is often considered an emotional medium of sensations and Cronenberg’s approach is a uniquely cerebral one that leaves the audience to intuit how they should feel about the darker human natures he unveils.
Much has been already written about that vicious fight between a nude Mortensen and two thugs in a public bathhouse. The scene particularly stands out in its messiness, which is a signature of Cronenberg's, who presents violence with almost a cold surgeon’s eye while forcing us to deal with the ugly results. This and other bursts of bloody violence are shocking but not pervasive and never gratuitous.
At the center of the film are the sturdy performances by Naomi Watts and particularly Viggo Mortensen. Watts certainly does not get enough credit for the fine work she consistently provides in very different movies. Here, as the moral center of the film, she projects a fierce emotional strength in the face of potential physical danger. Meanwhile, Mortensen, as he was in A History of Violence, is stoically powerful as the film’s most enigmatic character who finds his own values and loyalties put to the test when he meets this persevering woman who seeks order and security for this baby she has delivered.
Most films dealing with crime families, including The Godfather, romanticize them, presenting the unit in a closed and sealed world where the members define their own code of morality. They conceal and ignore the true consequences of their criminal activities and how they kill to maintain such a lifestyle. Eastern Promises knows better.
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