Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #553
Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 8, 2007
Sub-Genre: Crime Fiction
Country of Origin: Canada, United Kingdom
Box Office: $56,100,000
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Producers: Paul Webster, Robert Lantos
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Special Effects: Manex Efrem
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Studios: BBC Films, Astral Media, Corus Entertainment, Telefilm Canada, Kudos Pictures, Serendipity Point Films, Scion Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Josef Altin, Mina E. Mina, Aleksandar Mikic, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski, Donald Sumpter, Tereza Srbová, David Papava, Tamer Hassan, Michael Sarne
Narration: Tatiana Maslany
Suggested Audio Candy
Howard Shore “Eastern Promises”
I sometimes wonder whether Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is actually human or, instead, an altogether different strain. The undisputed King of Venereal Horror has had a long and distinguished career behind the camera stretching six decades and, the moment we think we’ve got a handle on his style, he changes direction completely. Indeed, when you look at his vast body of work, it has metamorphosed consistently during his tenure and, what started with low-budget body horror, is now a far more complex and fascinating animal.
My case in point is his 2014 film Maps to The Stars. A far cry from anything else in his oeuvre, this is as far departed from the kind of work he was once recognized for and never in a million years would I have ever seen it coming. However, in true Cronenberg fashion, it offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the rich and famous and is no less commanding than anything else he has made. That’s the thing with this behemoth of modern cinema, never once has he faltered and each of his film, no matter how diverse, hits the bullseye without exception. You try naming a substandard Cronenberg flick and I would argue a case against your decision. One would imagine that even his daily bowel movements are intriguing.
Back in 2005, he changed trajectory again and A History of Violence marked a whole new direction for his storytelling. Predictably it was somewhat brilliant and coerced a stunning turn from Viggo Mortensen, appearing alongside his wife Maria Bello and a chilling Ed Harris. Two years later and, once again, Cronenberg and Mortensen joined forces and Eastern Promises is the bi-product of their incalculable association. Like the film that directly preceded it, organized crime is hot topic and that means rubbing shoulders with all manner of undesirables and low life reprobates. However, as the title points out, this time there’s a distinctly eastern flavor.
After well-connected Russian wise guy Soyka (Aleksandar Mikic) is provided more than the short back and sides he has requested in a Turkish barber shop and is left sporting a hefty throat cavity for his troubles and very much stiff, the repercussions are invariably going to be severe. Elsewhere, a young Russian girl by the name of Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) is also not having the best of evenings. At full term and primed to burst like a pimple, she ends up at the nearest hospital for emergency delivery but, while her offspring survives the ordeal, Tatiana is less fortunate and never gets to hear the patter of tiny feet.
Enter kind-natured nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) who, feeling it is her responsibility to track down any other members of the child’s bloodline, pockets the dead girl’s journal, which is written in Russian and supplies precious little in the way of enlightenment. What she needs is a translator and, while her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) is a native, he also has a tendency to rub Anna up the wrong way. Hence she pays a visit to restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in an attempt to make sense of the diary’s entries. Here she meets his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his designated driver Nikolai (Mortensen) and the plot immediately thickens.
Anna is a resourceful, quick-thinking woman and trusts her gut when it tells her of something fishy being afoot. Semyon shows a vested interest in the journal but perhaps a little more unhealthy than she had hoped and alarm bells start ringing accordingly. Unfortunately for Anna, this isn’t a fly-by-night operation Semyon is running and his connections to the criminal underworld and Russian mafia make him the last person on earth you wish to get tangled up with.
Meanwhile, Nikolai and Kirill are taking care of some particularly unsavory business of their own as a result of Soyka’s unforeseen departure and this all ties into a world that Anna promptly wishes she hadn’t been introduced to. With Semyon clearly not to be trusted and the fruit of his loins increasingly careering off the rails, it is left to his partner in crime to assist her with her conundrum. However, his intentions are decidedly less than clear and it looks like he may be harboring his own perilous secret.
Eastern Promises gradually unfurls and constricts at the very same time. Like Anna, we feel implicated in something that is unlikely to end in anything other than tears and, as events transpire and she spirals deeper into the void, Cronenberg has us precisely where he wants us – in his back pocket. Peter Suschitzky works with his vision to make the streets of London far less than hospitable and frequent flyer Howard Shore provides a hauntingly evocative score that reminds us why their association is still intact after so many years.
Where it truly excels is the performances of the three central characters. Cassel has just the right weasel-like features to make Kirill a formidable player and somehow inexplicably manages to make him vaguely likeable in the most tenuous sense imaginable of course. Watts is never less than brilliant and effortlessly strikes the balance between vulnerability and mental toughness. We are engaged with her plight from the very first moment she cuts the umbilical and her ability as an actress continues to astound me.
However, Mortensen’s immensely courageous performance trumps all others and, even during his quieter moments, he has us hook, line and sinker. I’ve never seen a bad turn from him and that trend continues here although man of few words Nikolai may just rank as his career best. Cronenberg knows exactly what he wants from his leading man and is provided that with rubles to spare. While evidently there’s a beating heart beneath all that war paint, he remains the last man on earth you would wish to cross words with and his portrayal of Nikolai is never less than fascinating.
Eastern Promises provides yet another masterclass in filmmaking and complex narrative and, at this point, Cronenberg is starting to appear something of a martian. If there’s a chink in his armor, then it sure as shit ain’t visible and, while his movies are uniformly excellent, this may well be the pinnacle of his post-millennium output. It reminds me of a Russian doll ironically as each layer peeled away reveals another just as enticing. Most critically, it provides a harsh reminder that privacy should always be respected and personal journals are best left well alone.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: I have a lot of admiration for the manner in which Cronenberg approaches violence. With his horror days now long behind him, exploding heads and abdominally inserted VHS tapes are no longer called for. However, he still has a fondness for sickness and punctuates the calm here with some gloriously grisly examples. Aside from one of the most distressingly deep throat gouges ever committed to celluloid, we also have the infamous sauna scene and here absolutely no punches are pulled. Meanwhile, for any ladies fond of Mortensen and wondering what he is packing beneath his towel, wonder no more as he is all in here with nothing whatsoever left to the imagination. It’s far from titillating of course, but further proof that there is nothing this man won’t do in the pursuit of his art. Kudos indeed.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
© Copyright: Rivers of Grue™ Shadow Spark Publishing™