If you saw David Cronenberg's last film A History of Violence, then his new thriller Eastern Promises might strike you as something of a companion piece. Not that they're strictly related: one was a story about gangsters in small-town America, the other is about Russian gangsters in London, and the connections are more subterranean than obvious. Yet Cronenberg is a director of such a powerful stylistic stamp and such insistent obsessions that he could direct a biscuit commercial scripted by Judd Apatow and it would inevitably come out Cronenbergian.
Eastern Promises is scripted by Steve Knight, the writer behind Stephen Frears's 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things: that too was a grisly story about a sordid modern London ruled by crime, with immigrants as both the oppressors (among them, a hotel manager running a brisk trade in cut-price body parts) and the oppressed. Eastern Promises is similarly no advert for metropolitan life, and its story – again, a good soul attempts to right wrongs in a corrupt world – makes Eastern Promises very much a follow-up to Knight's earlier piece.
But Eastern Promises would have been an entirely different product if filmed by any other director, and there's no mistaking the Cronenberg touch here: the concision, the claustrophobia, the uneasy sense of borderline unreality, the heightened artifice of even such an element as Viggo Mortensen's hairstyle, a geometrically precise, oiled pompadour that's somehow a degree or two more sinister than any coiffure ever worn in the real world. This isn't London, but Cronenberg's London, a nightmarish place that never existed till now.
Superficially, Eastern Promises looks like a schematic tale of decent people confronting systematic evil. Midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) happens to attend to a teenage Russian girl who dies in childbirth, leaving only a diary as a clue to her identity.
In a surge of compassion, Anna decides to unravel the dead girl's past, her own back story rather awkwardly establishing her as a woman on a mission: half Russian herself, Anna has recently had a miscarriage and lost her lover. Anna's only lead is the address of a Russian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a pullover-wearing patriarch whose beam is as warming as borscht.
He volunteers to help Anna but gauche as she is, she fails to twig – as we do, on sighting the leather-raincoated goons hovering round the establishment – that Semyon is a godfather of the local Russian mafia. Soon, Anna's family is being breathed on heavily by Semyon's henchmen, causing her English mother (a frightfully, comically crisp Sinead Cusack) to have decorous conniptions, while her reactionary old sod of a Russian uncle (veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, pepperishly pugnacious) mutters ominously about his dubious days with the KGB ("Auxiliary", he adds cautiously).
Hovering in the background, meanwhile, is Nikolai (Mortensen), Semyon's driver, smoothly polite beneath sunglasses and an assymetrical smirk: his other duties include chaperoning Semyon's boorish son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and tidily clipping the fingers off freshly frozen corpses. It's really Nikolai who is the centre of the film, while Anna – a pallid part played honourably and earnestly by Watts – is merely our conduit into the story.
Another director might have been more interested in the horrors that the dead Russian girl has lived through, partly revealed by a running voiceover; it might even seem callous that Cronenberg alludes to sex slavery, people trafficking and related horrors, yet uses them almost as a backdrop. But his primary interests lie elsewhere: Eastern Promises displays his detached fascination with underground conspiracies rather than empathy with the individuals that they destroy.
As you'd expect, this is an extremely brutal film, with liberal use of cut-throat razors and a murderous showdown in a steam bath between knife-wielding assassins and a naked Nikolai. Cronenberg has really made a pulp-paperback story with a Shakespearean undertow: Eastern Promises turns out to be a tale of dynastic struggle, and if the film's Russian crime world doesn't seem entirely realistic, I doubt it was intended to be: Semyon's restaurant is less a catering outlet than the enclosed court of a feudal ruler. As for London, rather than resembling the city of today, this cramped, clammy metropolis, where you barely glimpse the sky, has its foundations partly in the cut-price thrillers of 1950s British cinema, partly in Dickens (a key location is a mouldering Thames quayside where Mr Quilp might once have lurked).
The Cronenberg stamp is most clearly visible in the scene where Nikolai is ritually received into the ranks of the Russian mob and given star tattoos on his knees, adding to an already densely embellished skin surface. This image chimes with Cronenberg's fascination with exotic transformations of the body, but it also offers a strange inversion of Viggo Mortensen's role in A History of Violence, as an all-American family man whose gentle exterior hides a carefully repressed killer's psyche. By contrast, Nikolai is only too readable, the insignia of his criminal calling openly emblazoned on his body: again, though, there's more to be revealed beneath the surface.
Fascinating though it is, Eastern Promises is not Cronenberg at his very best: it's nowhere near as confident as Violence or as troubling as his underrated psychological hall-of-mirrors film Spider, also set in a distorted London. But it's still a remarkable film, and its sardonic control and spareness shouldn't be mistaken for dramatic paucity. Eastern Promises is a superior B-movie by a director of A-grade rigour, deviousness and perversity.
Further reading Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, Vols 1 & 2, by Sergei Vasiliev et al (Steidl/Fuel)Reuse content