Eastern Promises (2007) is the story of Anna (Naomi Watts) a midwife working at a London hospital who helps a 14-year-old Russian girl (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) deliver her child. The young mother dies, leaving behind the infant girl and a diary; Anna, who is part Russian, adopts diary and child and sets out to discover what had happened to the mother.
Her quest leads her to the Trans-Siberian, a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Meuller-Stahl); Semyon is all grandfatherly charm, offering to translate the diary; Anna is hesitant--her uncle Stepan (Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowsky) tells her to stay away from the vory v zakone (thieves in law), the Russian mafia, of which Semyon is the apparent local leader. Part and parcel of Semyon's organizational apparatus is his chauffer-slash-foot soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whose primary assignment is guarding Semyon's alcoholically unstable son, Kiril (Vincent Cassell). Will Anna translate the diary and protect the girl? Will she develop affection for, perhaps even a bond with, Nikolai, or will Kiril (who's just dripping with suppressed desires) get to him first? Will Semyon be brought to justice, the young girl avenged?
What do you think? The script is by Steve Wright, who also wrote the screenplay to Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and like that earlier film it's concerned with European immigrants and the way they feed off of each other and struggle to survive. I wasn't that big a fan of Frears' film--thought it (thanks in no small part to Frears' verite visual style) presented a grim enough predicament, but also a solution far too pat and tidy to be believable. Likewise with his script for Eastern--it draws us into a strange world and gives us enough details that we'd be hooked, but later depends on such unlikely devices as a woman's implacable sense of justice, a man's furtive sense of obligation, another man's implausible sense of outrage (on exactly what he is or is not capable of doing) to arrive at a (to Wright's mind, anyway) satisfying denouement. Wright has his heart in its rightful place; it's just his way of getting there that feels so wrong.
Enter Cronenberg, arguably one of the stranger, less sentimental filmmakers around. If I may trot out an old argument I've been making, like fellow master of the bizarre David Lynch he has strong feelings about sex and sexuality; unlike Lynch (a boy scout of a man who believes in the innocence and corruption of the world with equal fervor), there's little that's naïve in Cronenberg; unlike Lynch, who as often as not refuses to close in on the horrific imagery (or if he does, he inserts it briefly into the big screen, like a retinal flash) he's a pornographer of horror who prefers to show every gynecological detail of his monstrosities in all their pulsating glory.
Lately he's moved away from straight horror and into the realm of straight drama--without, I submit, losing that sense of unblinking strangeness that is the hallmark of all his films. Cronenberg, gazing upon a man's face and not some outsized vaginal orifice, seems to regarded that face as if it were a vaginal orifice, and still manages to communicate his sense of alienated unease to us, sans prosthetic makeup.
Hence, the strangeness of the film. Wright wrote a a tearjerker asking us to cry for a poor little prostitute and her hard-luck life; Cronenberg took the script and turned it into a meditation on the perversities inflicted on the human body. A teenage girl stands unsteadily in a drugstore, faints in a pool of her own blood; a man is kept frozen in a freezer, thawed out with a hairdryer, has his frosty fingers snipped off; another strips naked standing in a ring of old men, in an arcane ritual evoking everything from James Woods declaring fealty to the New Flesh in Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) to Jeremy Irons in scarlet high-priest robes, ready to perform medical alchemy in Dead Ringers (1988). The naked man's body, incidentally, is covered with intricate tattoos (in the Russian mafia, tattoos not only identify a person, it tells his story--where he came from, what he's gone through, who he's affiliated with) and Cronenberg's camera gazes upon those tattoos as if they were some Ballardian message inscribed by aliens, or worse; a message waiting for us to translate it, with no guarantee at all that we will like what we read.
As the medium for that message and Cronenberg's actor of choice nowadays when it comes to internally conflicted, externally stoic protagonists, Viggo Mortensen gives a marvelous performance. It isn't just the accent, delivered with Meryl Streeplike skill; Mortenson moves differently in this film, moves like a cautious, courtly Russian who knows he has to navigate carefully through a strange city; his sense of alienation from the culture and society around him, his inability to treat anything and anyone outside of his "family" with any amount of ease (he's perhaps at his most comfortable with Kiril, his boss' sociopathic son, who happens to be in love with him) turns him into our default surrogate--our eyes, in effect--in this world made just a tad unreal by virtue of being filtered through Cronenberg's sensibilities.
Cronenberg mentions that he wanted to avoid guns in the film, and I think he's right to do so--knives are so much more precise in the kind of damage they can do to human flesh as demonstrated in his setpiece action sequence, an attempted assassination in a bathhouse. The sequence (an attempted rape by Kyril by way of Semyon?) has some of the homoerotic poetry of the sauna murder in Orson Welles' great Othello (1952), some of the complex fight choreography and stuntwork of the climactic prison shower riot in Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980--well, perhaps not as intricate as the riot; O'Hara was working with stuntman-turned-star Lito Lapid and his daredevil colleagues, and they were given carte blanche to do pretty much whatever they wanted (and on wet tiles, yet!))--some of the sense of bloodletting and violated flesh of a Cronenberg film. Not a perfect production, not by a long shot, but a fascinating, fascinating work, nevertheless.
(First published in Businessworld 12.7.07)