Talking Movies

October 31, 2019

From the Archives: Eastern Promises

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to uncover the mystery surrounding a Russian teenager who died in childbirth. Her quest to translate the girl’s diary leads her into conflict with restaurant owner and crime-lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his menacing foot-soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Viggo Mortenson and director David Cronenberg follow their collaboration on A History of Violence with another film about a mysterious man connected to vicious criminals. Viggo Mortensen gives a tremendously committed lead performance. Most of his dialogue is in Russian and with his dark glasses, erect bearing, measured walk and slicked back hair he remains an enigmatic presence throughout. Cronenberg is very smart in avoiding the usual clichés about hitmen having a crisis of conscience. It’s impossible to guess the motivations of Viggo’s Nikolai and the film is all the more intriguing for it. It is also graphically violent, Cronenberg did after all give us the infamous exploding head scene in 1981’s Scanners. It’s hard not to think of Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho. Hitchcock, he claimed, served up such a big steak of violence early on with the shower scene that he was able to terrify the audience with just sizzle for the rest of the film because they feared another rare slice of gore. Cronenberg opens his film with a repulsively gruesome throat-slitting. This lends an air of tension to every scene with Mafioso that follows.

But Cronenberg doesn’t just use sizzle in Eastern Promises, we get a steak too, in what will become an infamous scene. A very naked Viggo has to defend himself at the Finsbury Public Baths against two men armed with linoleum knives in a fight twice as gruelling as that of The Bourne Ultimatum. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain with its notoriously lengthy murder scene springs to mind here as there is a tour de force tracking shot by Cronenberg that ends in a violent act guaranteed to have audiences moaning. It’s worth noting here that the film is also surprisingly funny. Steven Knight, co-creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (seriously!), also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another acclaimed picture of immigrants being exploited in London, but before that he was a comedy writer. The humour here is all the more potent for being so incongruous in the milieu of the Vory V Zakone criminal fraternity.

The acting is uniformly superb except for Vincent Cassell’s one note psychopath, the heir apparent Kirill. Naomi Watts excels opposite Viggo as the depressed midwife Anna driven to seek justice for the dead 14 year old victim of sex trafficking. She and her ordinary English mother (Sinead Cusack) and grouchy Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) are painfully powerless against the dangerous people she drags them into contact with in this dangerous quest, and we fear for them, especially against Armin Mueller-Stahl’s deceptively avuncular crime lord Semyon. This is an important film of great humanity but its graphic violence makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly.

4/5

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