Monday, January 07, 2008

Eastern Promises

The verdict: Well realised, immersive, slightly off-beat tale of Russian gangsters in London. It's violent, and even features naked fighting... but Mortensen is frighteningly good.

The rating: 7/10

Eastern Promises may sound, as someone pointed out to me today, like a 'special interest' movie, or perhaps the new slogan for Turkish Delight, (ah, remember them? - Ed) but don't be fooled readers, for it's actually the title of the latest movie from the fledgling Cronenberg-Mortensen Axis of Quality.

You may have gathered by now, but I'm trying to catch up on some of the better movies from 2007 that I missed due to assorted reasons associated with living in the real world (tsk, lame excuse - Ed). Anyway, Eastern Promises was very near the top of the list, and it didn't disappoint.

I probably wouldn't be alone in associating Cronenberg with his legacy of above average psychological horror flicks from the eighties and nineties. Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, the marvellously surreal ExistenZ, and of course Crash (yuck - Ed) shocked and provoked audiences with their schlocky, sinister atmosphere, but movies like 'The Naked Lunch' and more recently 'Spider' have hinted at an ambitious streak in Cronenberg, perhaps a desire to move away from the horror genre and tackle more mainstream material.

Now, he hasn't quite done that, but he certainly hasn't sold out his roots in violent, provocative cinema either. With the excellent 'A History of Violence', however, Cronenberg recruited Viggo Mortensen, headed in a slightly different direction, and made something remarkable. 'History of Violence' was notably different in themes from his previous work, but still retained the signature style and tense atmosphere that elevated his horror movies above the average. Eastern Promises continues that trajectory.

Mortensen returns as a London-based Russian gangster named Nikolai, working for a shady restauaranteur named Semyon. Meanwhile, Anna (Naomi Watts) is a mid-wife working at Trafalgar hospital. When a 14-year-old Russian girl dies in childbirth, leaving no clue behind as to her identity save a diary written entirely in her mother tongue, the paths of these two characters begin to cross. The diary is essentially a Pandora's Box, with Watts warned repeatedly to stay away and let it be. Thankfully however, she ignores these warnings, and the audience is plunged into this dark, previously unexplored corner of London.

Mortensen turns in a really great performance as Nikolai, sporting a marvellously quifftastic hairdo, and all the lazy inscrutable mannerisms of the Russian bodyguard who might want to toast a drink with you, or perhaps cut your fingers off.. who knows what that shrug of his shoulders could imply. Vincent Cassel is also excellent as the closeted, foppish, yet extremely dangerous son of Mortensen's boss. The boss man himself - Semyon - is played by the formidable Armin Mueller-Stahl, one of those faces you'll recognise, but if you can place, you're doing better than me. (Shine? - Ed)

The film moves along at a deceptively lazy, yet steady pace, and this languid style is reflective of Semyon and Nikolai (Mortensen)'s dispositions in the movie... they may appear to move slowly, but you need to watch them closely...

Much of the movie is set indoors, and this adds to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. There is only ever a small number of central characters involved, and we gradualy become more and more involved with each, adding further to the tension. London is the setting, but there are no romantic aerial shots of Big Ben, the Eye or the Gherkin. This London is always at street level, the London of the resident as opposed to the tourist. Only for Naomi Watts' accent, we could well be in Russia.

Although Cronenberg has retained his penchant for ultra-violence and gore in a couple of scenes, he has answered a question I asked of Ridley Scott in a review of American Gangster. What can you bring to a genre that's been pretty much done before? Well, look no further, because Cronenberg has brought something entirely original. It's claustrophobic, immersive, and well-researched. Watch out for Mortensen's tattoos, the breathtakingly violent naked sauna knife fight, and the guy in the barbers in the very first scene. I won't say any more.

Your gran wouldn't like it, but I did. It's violent, but a great story. Mortensen is great in the lead role, and and Cassel, Watts and Stahl deliver in support. The ending isn't the best in the world, but I was willing to overlook this considering the entertaining hour and a half that came before. If you enjoyed 'History of Violence', PCMR recommends you check this one out immediately.

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