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 and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms