Eastern Promises

Toronto Film Fest 2007–Reinvention may not be the right term to describe the current phase of the supremely gifted Canadian director David Cronenberg, but he is certainly on a roll, making more accessible films, with major stars, that remarkably do not compromise his distinctive sensibility as an auteur.Cronenberg’s eagerly-anticipated crime thriller, “Eastern Promises,” reteams the acclaimed helmer with his “A History of Violence” leading man, Viggo Mortensen, and some of his usual collaborators behind the camera, such as his underrated director of cinematography, Peter Suschitzky.

Though lacking the epic scope, operatic vision, and visual grandeur of Coppola’s seminal trilogy, “The Godfather” movies, thematically, “Eastern Promises” is nonetheless a brutal, ultra-violent crime-gangster picture in the same vein, centering on a family of Russian mobsters in contemporary London.

The family aspect of the story was always crucial to the huge appeal and success of “The Godfather” saga, and it’s also crucial to “Easter Promises.” In Cronenberg’s film, essentially a family melodrama, an old, ruthless patriarch is contemptuous of his weakling, no-good son, favoring an “outsider” named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Nikolai begins as a driver and then rises slowly (but surely) to become the mobster’s most trusted employee–sort of a surrogate son.

Even acting-wise, comparisons will be made between  Mortensen’s quietly menacing Mafioso to that of the young Robert De Niro in “The Godfather Part II,” who morphs into Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in the first chapter of the epic trilogy, “The Godfather” (1972)

Unlike Cronenberg’s earlier work, there’s another novelty in “Eastern Promises.” In his last two features, the director has relied on screenplays written by other scribes, which, surprisingly, doesn’t limit his auteurist vision. This might have perhaps allow him to channel his energy into more intimate work with his actors and, and concentrate more on the tone and visual style of his pictures.

“Eastern Promises” world-premieres at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, where many of the local director’s films were showcased. It will be released theatrically by Focus Features September 14, 2007. It may become Cronenberg’s most commercial film in a long time (since “The Fly”)

With strong critical support and the right handling, “Eastern Promises” could become one of Cronenberg’s most commercial picture to date. No doubt, the film benefits from a taut screenplay and a superlative cast, that is headed by Mortensen, and includes Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, and Jerzy Skolimowski, all in top form.

Though an ensemble piece, with half a dozen sharply defined characters, “Eastern Promises” is dominated by Viggo Mortensen, who gives one of his most impressive and fully realized performances. With some luck and justice, this turn should finally earn Mortensen an Oscar nomination. (As I have indicated in my essays on “History of Violence” and other films, Mortensen is one of the most diverse, least mannered but most overlooked actors working in Hollywood, on the same level as Jeff Bridges, another ultra-modest and ultra-brilliant actor taken for granted by the industry).

The ingredients for a suspenseful, scary, provocative and timely crime film are all manifest in “Eastern Promises.” The feature is written by Steve Knight, the Oscar-nominated scripter of Stephen Frears’ urban thriller “Dirty Pretty Things,” who does a marvelous job. His economic writing is marked by fluent storytelling and strong but emotionally engaging characters.

As in “History of Violence,” Cronenberg explores in depth the personality, physicality and fortunes, of one man whose true nature is never wholly revealed. The film’s last image is so powerful and yet ambiguous that it’s wide open to interpretation. If my reading is correct, it leaves the door open to a sequel, particularly if “Eastern Promises” is successful at the box-office.

The film begins with two ultra-violent bloody scenes that grab us by the gut, and increases our attention to a high level of intense anticipation that never declines throughout the film’s short running time (88 minutes!).

In the first act, we witness a murder at a barbershop, where someone’s throat is being slashed–in close-up. In the second scene, a young woman, a Russian immigrant, is at a drugstore, asking for medication and help, only to collapse moments later. Rushed to the hospital, the teenage immigrant dies while giving birth to a baby girl, deposited in the hands of a kind midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts).

The yarn then follows with a more elaborate introduction of its protagonist. The mysterious, charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory Zakone criminal brotherhood.

It’s headed by Semyon (Oscar nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl, of “Shine” fame), whose courtly charm as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant impeccably masks a cold and brutal core. The family’s fortunes are tested by Semyon’s volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (French actor Vincent Cassel), who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father.

Nikolai’s carefully maintained existence is jarred once he crosses paths at Christmas time with Anna Khitrova (Oscar nominee Naomi Watts for “21 Grams”), a midwife at a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of the young teenager who dies while giving birth to a baby. Anna resolves to try to trace the baby’s lineage and relatives. The girl’s personal diary, which is written in Russian, also survives her, and Anna seeks answers in it.

Anna’s mother Helen (Sinad Cusack) does not discourage her. But Anna’s irascible, outspoken Russian-born uncle Stepan (Polish Jerzy Skolimowski, better known as a director) urges caution. He has a point: By delving into the diary, Anna has accidentally unleashed the fury of the Vory clan.

With Semyon and Kirill closing ranks, and Anna pressing her inquiries, Nikolai finds his loyalties divided. The family tightens its grip on him. Question is, who can, or who should he trust, as a harrowing chain of murder, deceit, and retribution reverberates through the darkest corners of both the family and London itself.

Cronenberg and scripter Knight use as narrative devices excerpts from the dead girl’s diaries, which are done in voice-over and reveal the fantasies of a young Eastern European woman praying for a better future in the West (hence the apt title).

One of the most consistently brilliant auteur of his generation, Cronenberg is responsible for some of the most provocative and original movies of the past two decades (“The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Crash”), works that are replete with creepy cinematic images of exploding heads, violent parasites, and flesh-made videogames.

In this feature, however, Cronenberg goes for a more realistic (even naturalistic) and less stylized approach in depicting a scary Russian mob in a dark and ominous London; most of the film is set at night and even the interior scenes have menace to them.

But, as noted earlier, thematically, “Eastern Promises” explores some issues that are recurrent in all of Cronenberg’s work.  First and foremost is the theme of “transgressive behavior,” be it biologically-induced, socially-conditioned.  Like “History of Violence,” new feature also concerns good versus evil and the frail, shufty nature of human identities.

Moreover, as a quintessentially Cronenbergian film, “Eastern Promises” contains at least three creepy and intensely violent scenes that may make some viewers squirmand will linger in memory long after the viewing; some are certain to stir controversy and debate.

Spoiler Alert

I’ll just provide hints about those scenes. One scene depicts graphically how Kirill forces Nikolai to have sexual intercourse with one of his teenage prostitutes, in order to prove that he (Nikolai) is “not a fag.” Kirill stands by the door while Nikolai engages in sexual activity all the way to completion.

The second horrific sequence, which may be the picture’s longest, and also establishes some sort of “a first” in history is a blood-bath scene, literally, since it takes place in a bathhouse, with Nikolai fighting for his life with some hoodlums, first wrapped in a towel, then completely in the nude.

The film’s violence is gruesome and intense, perhaps because most of it is executed with knives rather than guns, and often mano-a-mano, thus personalizing the battles. In this respect, too, “Eastern Promises” bears resemblance to “The Godfather” and to Scorsese’s crime-gangster masterpieces, “Taxi Driver,” “GoodFellas,” and most recently, “The Departed.”

End of Spoiler Alert

Cast:

Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen)
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts)
Kirill (Vincent Cassel)
Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl)
Stepan (Jerzy Skolimoski)
Helen (Sinead Cusack)

Credits:

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 101 Minutes.

A Focus Features release presented in association with BBC Films of a Kudos Pictures/Serendipity Point Films production in association with Scion Films, in association with Astral Media, Coros Entertainment and Telefilm Canada.
Produced by Paul Webster, Robert Lantos. Executive producers: Stephen Garrett, David M. Thompson, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman.
Co-producer: Tracey Seaward.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Screenplay, Steve Knight.
Camera: Peter Suschitzky.
Editor: Ronald Sanders.
Music, Howard Shore.
Production designer: Carol Spier.
Supervising art director: Nick Palmer.
Art director: Rebecca Holmes.
Set decorator: Judy Farr.
Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg.
Sound: Stuart Wilson.
Supervising sound editors: Wayne Griffin, Michael O’Farrell.