When legendary film maker David Cronenberg released A History of Violence in 2005, not only was it one of that years most well received thrillers, it appeared to show a step away from the strange and disturbing world of body horror that he had made his name on through the likes of Shivers, Videodrone and the controversial auto-erotica of 1996’s Crash.
Although this was something he began in 2002 with the relatively lesser known drama Spider, staring Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic trying to find out about his troubled childhood, A History of Violence was a gripping thriller about a coffee shop owner who becomes a small town hero, his notoriety uncovering a secret dark past that threatens him and his family.
For his follow up, Cronenberg decided to tackle the infamous Russian Mafia, something that excited and intrigued film fans. Gangster films are always of interest anyway, mainly due to us “outsiders” getting a view of a dangerous underworld involving money, guns, drugs and sex. But the fact that David Cronenberg was directing was also of interest: how would he direct it? Would he somehow go back to his surreal roots or would he make an epic drama/thriller in the style of The Godfather or Goodfellas?
The answer is a kind of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as Eastern Promises has the same brutal thriller mixed with human/family drama as Cronenberg’s previous outing, but fortunately it doesn’t feel like some half-arsed follow up of sorts but more of a continuation of the solid, effective and powerful style of thriller he succeeded in making with A History of Violence.
Released in 2007 to positive reviews, Eastern Promises delivered on it’s, erm, promise of letting the viewer get a glimpse into the shady world of the Russian Mafia while at the same time showing a woman’s fight to trace the relatives of a new born baby connected to the mob and the risk she is putting herself and her family in.
The woman in question is Anna. A mid-wife who helps deliver a baby girl to a mother that dies during labour. Discovering a diary written in Russian amongst the woman’s belongings, Anna wants to find out what’s written and trace the whereabouts of the child’s mothers’ family and help send the baby back to it’s natural home. Her search leads her to a posh, Trans-Siberian restaurant and it’s charming owner, Semyon, who also happens to be the head of one of London’s most brutal Eastern European crime families.
After Semyon finds out that the diary has incriminating evidence on the family, especially Semyon’s volatile son, Krill, Anna must use her head and fight for what she believes in or her and her family could face the wrath of Russia’s notorious criminal brotherhood, the Vory V Zakone. Fortunately for Anna, it seems she could have an unlikely ally in the Russian family’s driver, Nikolai.
Eastern Promises works so well because of its memorable characters and impressive cast. Naomi Watts’ Anna as the caring mid-wife who just wants to help a new born find a home by whatever means possible; Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai, the mysterious driver for the Russians who takes a liking to Anna and plays an important role in the survival of her family as well as the baby; Vincent Cassel as Krill, the arrogant, volatile son of Semyon, a possible liability for the family: someone that can snap at any moment, unaware of the consequences; and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon, the typically charming restaurant owner with a cold and brutal side hidden from the outside world as head of the criminal family. All give powerhouse performances. Cronenberg using Viggo Mortensen for a second time after A History of Violence says it all about the directors opinion of him as an actor.
While it’s easy to give credit to David Cronenberg, it’s Steven Knight’s script that made him want to direct Eastern Promises and you can see why. His script weaves between Anna and her family’s predicament of finding the baby, who Anna names Christine, a home and getting involved with criminals alongside the brutal plans and actions of the Russian Mafia. Indeed, the first few minutes include a suspected police informant getting his throat slit in a barber’s shop and the film’s most memorable scene involves a naked Viggo Mortensen taking on two (clothed, thankfully) gangsters in a bloody, background music-less fight in a sauna.
It’s easy to remember these scenes, as well as the killer twist towards the end but what helps make the film are the moments of “will they, won’t they?” chemistry between Anna and Nikolai – an unlikely partnership maybe but Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts really make it believable. Add to that tragic mother Tatiana’s voiceover’s about her life and growing up to getting involved with the Russians, it really adds a human element to the overall feel of the film.
Ending in typical Cronenberg fashion of leaving the viewer with more questions than answers, the one thing he hasn’t left behind from his early days, Eastern Promises is a powerful and engaging thriller with style and substance in equal measure.