Making Good

 

David Cronenberg is the most provocative, original and consistently excellent North American director of his generation. From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005) — not Scorsese, Spielberg or even David Lynch has enjoyed a comparable run.

A rhapsodic movie directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power from an original screenplay by Steven Knight, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided action-hero savior. Both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else.

Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises opens on a rainy December eve with a brutal gangland murder in a London barber shop and unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian emigrant thugs and whore masters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a central London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute named Tatiana, dies in childbirth. Half-Russian herself, Anna filches the girl’s diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascible, inebriated uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. “Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?” he asks. The question will hang over the rest of the movie.

A business card found in the diary brings Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, administered by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). That this red-and-gold Nutcracker wonderland turns out to be the headquarters for the London branch of the gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone (thieves in law) is the least of the movie’s surprises. In her attempt to fathom the origins of the orphan to whom she has given the seasonal name Christina, Anna is continually bamboozled by the Trans-Siberians, a tribe whose every pleasantry carries a threat. “This isn’t our world — we are ordinary people,” her anxious mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her.

As usual with Cronenberg, the ordinary is contested terrain. However naïve and depressed Anna appears, she is on a serious — and seriously deranged — quest. She’s lost a baby through miscarriage and wants another one: Tatiana’s..

Cronenberg’s two previous works, Spider and A History of Violence, were murderous family dramas; Eastern Promises continues this trend. Mueller-Stahl may be perfunctory in the role of the Russian paterfamilias, but Vincent Cassel flings himself into the role of his wastrel son, Kirill, particularly in the company of the movie’s most compelling presence, the crime family’s chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen). Here is the movie’s love story; in fact, the coupling of Kirill and Nikolai has the potential to fulfill Anna’s dream. Hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind wraparound shades, Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in his History of Violence role; the actor speaks Russian as if he knows what he’s saying, and his world-weary strut is at least as eloquent. Nikolai is a superbly complicated character — dark, diffident, cynical, hyperalert, tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue.

Eastern Promises is a masterful mood piece with a surplus of atmosphere. Intermittently excerpted in voice-over, Tatiana’s diary is the most awkward element in Knight’s otherwise impeccable screenplay. Everything else is fluid. Blood flows, and rain is nearly constant. Corpses are tossed into the Thames, but secrets keep bobbing to the surface. Late in the movie, Eastern Promises‘ homoerotic subtext bursts its banks and all but floods the screen in a steamy public bathhouse with an extraordinary, complex action sequence.

This is Cronenberg’s most straightforward narrative in years, a cosmic struggle between good and evil. But it’s also an elaborate game played out in a fallen world. Is our Nikolai an angel, or has Anna made a deal with the devil? And what if that amounts to the same thing?

 

Categories: Movies