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.

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