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Eastern Promises   B

Focus Features / BBC Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski.

Review by Rob Vaux
"They'll kill you just to see if the gun works."
--Unnamed NYPD officer, on the Russian Mafia

We've seen plenty of Irish and Italian gangsters in the movies, but comparatively few Russians. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, criminal organizations centered on ex-Soviet immigrants have grown to frightening proportions, yet few motion pictures have really tackled them as a serious subject. Oh, the odd low-rent thriller will use them as colorful alternatives to normal Mafia clichés, but this particular branch of the global underworld still lacks a definitive cinematic statement -- a Godfather or a Goodfellas to call its own. Eastern Promises hopes to change that. Director David Cronenberg certainly has sufficient talent and his dedication is rarely less than total. Sadly, his pedigree may send expectations just a tad too high, asking perfection from an effort that never approaches the fullness of its potential. But despite that, it remains a fascinating entry into a little-understood subculture: capitalizing both on the dark nature of its subjects and the singular auteurial stamp of one of the best filmmakers working today.

Screenwriter Steve Knight (who penned the extraordinary Dirty Pretty Things) focuses on the two aspects of the Russian mob that fit most readily into Cronenberg's sensibilities: the appropriation of women's bodies, and the intrusion of the artificial into the biological. The first takes the form of prostitution cum slavery, a staple of criminal moneymaking. Eastern European girls will be lured to the West with dreams of easy wealth, only to be deprived of money and passport, and locked into lives of unspeakable degradation. The second involves tattooing -- a tradition that developed in Soviet prisons and forms a specific litany describing the wearer's history and crimes. Other gangs use similar markings on their members, but rarely with such precision or complexity -- a fact that Cronenberg never lets us forget.

Eastern Promises weaves these twin notions into a serviceable overview of its subject: a sort of "Vor v Zakonye 101" to initiate the unfamiliar. The plot follows a very typical crime-saga structure, with doting yet ruthless mob overlord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) ruling his empire from a high-end Siberian restaurant in London and two potential heirs apparent vying for his favor. The literal son is Kirill (Vincent Cassel): doltish, impulsive, possibly gay (a kiss of death in this world), but bound to the organization with ties that cannot be broken. The figurative son is Kirill's driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who silently performs the mob's thankless dirty work (like hacking the fingers off of corpses to prevent identification) in hopes of eventual advancement. Fans of the genre will find nothing new in their grim deeds and murky power struggles, but under Cronenberg's direction, they attain an intensity which allows their distinctive cultural underpinnings to linger in the mind.

Eastern Promises further strengthens its hand by providing us with a surrogate outsider: Anna (Naomi Watts), an English midwife of Russian descent, who witnesses the death of a young woman giving birth to a baby girl in her hospital. The incident touches on unspoken wounds, and when she finds a diary in the mother's purse (written in Russian), she hopes that its translation will lead to the baby's family. Instead it sends her straight into the machinations of Semyon and his brood. There, she finds a possible ally in Nikolai, who says little but clearly has more on his mind than cleaning up his superiors' garbage. Cronenberg parlays their tenuous connection slowly and methodically, testing our patience at times until the unspoken entanglements start to bubble exquisitely to the surface. Anna's humanistic concern for the baby is punctuated by periodic voice-overs from the mother's diary, describing a naïve young woman who blissfully strolls into the arms of monsters. Much of the gangsters' business appears in similarly oblique forms: in phrases, in suggestions, in methodically plotted power plays that explode into violence (including the single most gruesome scene you'll likely see this year) only when the orchestrators are safely away. Mortensen embodies that ethos with uncanny accuracy. Though his accent thickens unduly at times, few actors can convey emotion through sheer physicality the way he does, and the sight of his lean, sinewy body rippling with ink makes a fearsome visual punctuation to unseen deeds that can still be sensed in every frame.

The driving source of those deeds is what keeps Eastern Promises from becoming just another gangster picture. Shakespearean overtones and sinister plotting are all well and good -- aided by Cronenberg's unflinching camera and the refreshing counterbalance of Watts' character -- but nothing any competent director couldn't duplicate. When overlaid with these patterns, however, their familiarity takes on strange and uncomfortable hues. We're used to the grand romantic tragedians of The Godfather and the amoral thugs of Goodfellas. The mobsters here embody the worst aspects of both: cold, brilliant logic applied without the slightest regard for human life. Semyon and his brood are still strangers in a strange land, and like the Corleones, they parlay their cunning to take what mainstream society won't give them. But their country's longtime status as Western boogeyman -- now living in the very shadow of the British capital -- gives their brutality a potency long since missing from more shopworn gangland stereotypes. Few directors understand their position the way Cronenberg does, or can convey the ways in which the foreign/alien can seem so hauntingly, tragically human. Eastern Promises isn't his greatest meditation on the subject, but it provides more than enough distinction to make up the difference.

Review published 09.14.2007.

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