From Russia with Stabbery: Eastern Promises
Well, it’s been a marathon slog, but I’m finally up to date with the Cronenberg series. I’ve seen grubby sex, drugs crazed mugwamps, piss poor drag racing and all manner of psychotics, but finally I’ve arrived at Eastern Promises, the most recent Cronenberg film. To be honest, I know next to nothing about immigrants in London, and even less about Russian Culture, or Russian organised crime- beyond the assumption that they have to drink gallons of vodka. I feel fairly safe on that assumption. Eastern Promises, therefore, as far as I’m concerned, may well be gospel truth. It may also be complete gibberish, but I don’t care, because it’s an extremely accomplished film and a fine way to end the series.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a half-Russian London midwife. Due to a series of unfortunate events, she is present at the birth of Christina, and the death of her mother Tatiana. Tatiana was an underage hooker who was carted in to Accident and Emergency undergoing complications in her pregnancy. All she left behind was a diary, and Anna’s attempt to decipher it draws her into the shady world of the Russian Mafia. Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, the Driver, and general bitch of Vincent Cassel’s unhinged Kallil, with something to hide. Eastern Promises charts his rise up the ladder.
This is a good film, there’s no doubt, and the performances are a large part of the reason why. Watts is good at the slightly self-righteous Anna, who is quite clearly out of her depth. Mortensen is a study of understated acting here- this performance is actually very similar to the Stall one from A History of Violence, except with a Russian accent. Cassel, on the other hand, is superb as Kallil, playing an alcoholic psychopath that’s stranded in the closet with no little aplomb. The remainder of the supporting cast, particularly Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon are also excellent.
Eastern Promises deals with many, if not all, of Cronenberg’s major themes. It really is a culminatory film on that front. Kallil, for example, is a closet homosexual, desperate to conceal his true identity and act a part in front of his father. Every single character- with the exception of Anna- has reason to conceal something of their identity, and every single one of them, including Anna, changes revealing their real self by the end of the film. Furthermore, the tattoos that the Russians sport that “tell the story of their lives” could come straight from any other Cronenberg film- they really are history carved into live flesh. As a result, his style fits the material, and when brutality is required (surprisingly often, actually) he’s more than happy to step up to the plate and deliver some supreme violence.
This is a fucking brutal film- I can’t think of ever seeing another like it. For example, there’s a sequence early on when a throat is slashed. In most films, the knife slides gently across the skin, and out fountains the blood. Here, the head is held and the killer literally has to saw at the throat to get his desired result. Nasty. Of course, there’s the standout scene of the film: the bath house fight, where Nikolai has to fend off to angry Chechens while completely naked. As a metaphorical stripping down of the character this works a treat, as a cinematic masterclass in violence on screen it’s even more effective. This is a nasty, realistic, brutal fight- punches are thrown and people are stunned, Viggo gets painfully carved up like a Christmas turkey and the end result is 2 dead gangsters and one hospitalised hero. It feels realistic partially because the combatants are so ungainly. There’s none of the slick choreography of your usual Hollywood fare, rather there’s a starkness and simplicity to the scene that amplifies the effect of it- this feels real and therefore unsettling.
Having praised it so highly, and it is a good film, I’m just going to talk about what I think is the major flaw of it. The writing to this film is, for the most part, very good. However, roughly 3/4 of the way through it is revealed that Viggo is an undercover Russian policeman. This was, to be fair, foreshadowed earlier in the film (but I missed it on first watch) and it does go a long way to explain some of his actions, however I honestly believe that this idea is introduced to us far too late. It feels incongruous and unnecessary, and as such confuses the film. It doesn’t matter to the narrative that Nikolai is a policeman, and they don’t go anywhere with this idea so why over-egg the pudding? Especially as the film ends with a Godfather-esque image of Nikolai supping vodka. It feels, the cynic in me suggests, that this was actually being set up for a sequel, as the film functions perfectly adequately without the suggestion that he’s a cop. If anything, it suggests cowardice on behalf of the writers, that they couldn’t just make him a villain that does the right thing because he wants to. I know that’s clichéd but no more so than that he’s an undercover cop. It really marred my enjoyment of the film on first watch, and although it didn’t irk me as much this time, I still believe that it just doesn’t add anything useful and I’d rather it hadn’t been done.
Overall, I do really recommend Eastern Promises. I don’t think it’s quite as good as A History of Violence, but nevertheless is still in the positive column. It’s a brutal, visceral entertaining couple of hours, and if the intention was to make a sequel, I will gladly stump up the cash for it. I give Eastern Promises 3 Changs out of 4.
Right, that’s me finished with Cronenberg. I’m thinking about another interesting director to do this with, so until then,
The final list