Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Promises to Keep

“Eastern Promises” is typical David Cronenberg. To some, that may sound like an insult. Others might suggest that there is nothing “typical” about the man who directed “Rabid”, “The Fly”. and “A History of Violence.” Both would be wrong.

Cronenberg consistently explores themes of identity and the layers of self we possess and project to others. Underneath, when all those layers are peeled away, lives something base and animalistic. How we control it, how we live with it, and what happens when it gets loose, is the source of drama in Cronenberg’s films.

In “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg drops Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, into that city’s Russian underworld. The daughter of a Russian immigrant father and an English mother, she is thoroughly Anglicized. She is unable to read the Russian entries in a diary found on a young pregnant girl brought into the hospital.  After the girl dies giving birth, Anna is determined to find the girl’s family. Her late father’s brother, Stepan, refuses to translate the diary for her, saying she should, “bury her secrets with her bodies [sic].” Unfazed, Anna visits Trans-Siberian, a Russian restaurant, after finding its business card in the pages of the diary.

The Russians at Trans-Siberian, both patrons and staff, are immigrants, old and new, who are deeply connected to their Russian roots. Anna finds it all fascinating, especially Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the proprietor, who agrees to help her with the diary. We also meet a couple of shady characters hanging around the Trans-Siberian, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon’s son, and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As the story unfolds, layers are stripped away from each character. Much more about the plot can’t be discussed without spoiling what lays beneath those layers. Suffice to say that Cronenberg’s love of brutality, both psychological and physical plays out here, the former dominating the latter, though there is a scene of extraordinary viciousness that will likely be discussed by cineastes for decades to come.

The performances of Watts, Cassel, and Mortensen are all excellent. Mortensen, in particular, is outstanding. You never believe Nikolai’s repeated claim, “I’m just the driver,” knowing there is much more to him. Unfortunately Mueller-Stahl, as well as Sinead Cusack as Anna’s mother Helen, and Jerzy Skolimowski as her Uncle Stepan, are weaker. Cusack and Skolimowski don’t have that much to work with, having limited screen time. Mueller-Stahl, on the other hand, has plenty of screen time but comes across as a little too unctuous from the start, rendering Semyon too readable, too soon.

The film is very nicely shot by director of photography Peter Suschitzky. In keeping with Cronenberg’s theme of horror beneath banal facades, he shoots the world of the Russians in such a way as to show that it may be in London, but it is separate and distinct. It tends to the closed and claustrophobic, attaining a level of intimacy often not associated with a large metropolis.

Cronenberg has managed to craft a film about gangsters that neither glorifies them nor belittles ordinary people. It is compelling and horrifying and emotionally engaging, some of the characterizations are slightly lacking. When it comes to delivering a look beneath the surface of things, “Eastern Promises” lives up to its promise.

 Rating: 4/5

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