Eastern Promises (18)

3.00

Honour among thieves

There's an awful lot of red in the palette of David Cronenberg's intriguing gangster noir Eastern Promises. The opening 20 minutes offer varying shades of the colour, from a little girl's crimson party dress to the scarlet plush banquette in a restaurant, from the dark beetroot of a bubbling vat of borscht to the candy stripes on a barber's pole and a pocket diary. Most striking of all is the gore spouting from a man's throat after he's been inexpertly slashed by a razor. Get used to that, because you'll be seeing a lot more of it.

Blood in a Cronenberg movie, of course, is no great surprise, and there's something familiar, too, about the set-up. Like his previous movie, the near-magnificent A History of Violence (2005), this concerns a Mafia family in violent collision with "ordinary people". Then, it was an Irish mobster having his past dug up in the American Midwest. Here, it's a Russian family attached to the criminal brotherhood of vory v zakone, and the setting has shifted to London – not the postcard one of Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square, but a rain-lashed nocturne of Hackney and Clerkenwell. Eastern promises, indeed.

Viggo Mortensen, the haunted double-lifer of A History of Violence, stars here as Nikolai, chauffeur and foot-soldier of Russian mobsters. His eyes concealed by dark glasses, his hair slicked back in a rockabilly pompadour, Nikolai is a hard nut whose life story – crime, prison, gangs – is etched in tattoos all over his body. (We know we're in Cronenberg country already.)

He's the kind of man who doesn't flinch when he's dealing in the tricky business of dismembering a corpse: he prunes fingers and pulls teeth with the professional but faintly bored air of a hired gardener. And his cheeky flourish is to stub out a cigarette with his tongue. He's plainly much smarter than the boss's son, a weak-minded blowhard named Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and the boss, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), seems to realise it, too.

The only time Nikolai lets down his guard is in the company of Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a local hospital who is half-Russian herself. Anna has recently delivered a baby girl from a Russian teenager who died in the process, leaving behind a diary.

In it, she finds a card advertising the Trans-Siberian restaurant, whose proprietor is none other than Semyon. Anna asks this apparently twinkly old man to help her get in touch with the baby's family, but once her hard-drinking uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) translates the contents of the dead girl's diary, it's clear that Semyon is not someone she ought to have been within a mile of. Soon enough, Nikolai is ordered to bury the problem and Anna's uncle with it.

Cronenberg's picture of London feels as claustrophobic and bleak as the Fifties version of the capital he conjured in Spider (2002). If it's not the infernal reds of Semyon's restaurant, it's the drab, Brooknerish interiors of Anna's home, where she lives with her mother (Sinead Cusack). Between these poles stretches an infinity of dark back-streets and Thames mud flats straight out of Dickens. Menace and misery grapple for the upper hand.

The screenplay is by Steve Knight, who reprises elements from his earlier London story Dirty Pretty Things: lost immigrants, people-trafficking, the desperate effort to keep one's head above the murk. I think the pathos of the dead teenager might have been left to speak for itself; instead, he provides voiceovers from her diary that tell of innocence horribly violated. (It turns out she was – oh the pity of it! – a choirgirl, too). The fate of the now-motherless baby is also linked too neatly with Anna's own longing for a child, having lost one of her own some time back.

Yet if its movement is somewhat mechanical and the motifs a little obvious, Cronenberg is his own master, still ready to throw in the sort of scene few other directors could dare. There are two here, very different in tone and tempo yet of a sort that will be remembered long after the plot has faded.

The first is a birthday party in Semyon's restaurant, where an old dear is being treated to a full-scale reproduction of Mother Russia hospitality, though from the sidelong looks she gives the blond-tressed berk serenading her, it's not quite the festive treat Semyon seems to think.

That note of curdled nostalgia is soon violently contrasted with a different reminder of how they do things in the East. Nikolai is enjoying a well-earned rest in a Turkish bath when two killers – Chechens, this time – turn up, glinting with steel. Armed with only a towel, which he soon loses, Nikolai has to fight for his life against their whippy blades while Cronenberg has to ensure that Mortensen's cojones don't literally dominate the view. As nude wrestling goes, it sticks it (as it were) to Alan Bates and Oliver Reed's frolics during Women in Love.

These charming flourishes aside, Eastern Promises doesn't really deliver the killer blows one hoped for. There's something rather staid in its pacing and its direction, and of the cast only Mortensen achieves a degree of moral traction. Mind you, what a performance it is. It's not just that his Slavic cheekbones lend him the look, or that he learnt to speak Russian for the part; it's the watchfulness in his eyes and the languid gestures that convince us that this guy has survived some Dostoyevskian hard times. As for those tattoos, hell, I bet he didn't feel a thing. This, along with his performance in A History of Violence, suggests that we could be watching the best sensitive tough guy since Russell Crowe.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit