Monday, 2 April 2012

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

David Cronenberg teams up again with Viggo Mortensen for this tale of crime and depravity in London's dark underbelly. The last time these two power talents converged we were left with the masterpiece A History of Violence (2005) which showcased a complex virtuoso performance from Mortensen and Cronenberg at the height of his directorial powers. Two years later and they're back with another crime thriller though on different soil this time; Whereas their previous outing picked apart the appearance of 'wholesome' American living to reveal a dark repressed violence that said just as much about the country's history as the characters themselves, their new Eastern Promises takes place on the mean streets of London charting a nurse's decent into the criminal lives of a Russian family and her relationship with their driver/bodyguard Nikolai.

As the film opens we see two acts of bloodshed, in one we see a man's throat slit in a murder that reeks of retribution. The scene is horrific and extreme for all the right reasons, throats are slit all the time in films but this one really hits home and makes you squirm. In the next scene a young pregnant girl collapses in a chemist in a pool of her own blood, she is rushed to hospital where she is cared for by nurse Anna (Naomi Watts). The girl tragically passes on but leaves with her a baby and a diary, Anna delves into the diary for contacts details but only learns of abuse. The diary leads her to a dangerous Russian family who Anna suspects of the abuse and eventual death of the young girl, she wants justice but finds she is in over her head.

As Anna's investigation goes on with the help of her Russian uncle (convenient yes?) the story does become muddled, unfocused, and unfortunately rather unengaging. The film is held together by strong performances and a supporting role by the always enigmatic Vincent Cassel as the trigger happy Joe Pesci to Mortensen's Ray Liotta. The film as a whole however is a mixed bag which doesn't add up to a whole lot once you realise it's built up of interesting moments rather than a story of thematic resonance. Perhaps it's because of the pure talent involved here and the near impossible task of creating another film as layered and thought provoking as AHOV that makes Eastern Promises feel like a disappointment. Cronenberg does not make mundane films, he always has something to say and this venture isn't one to be missed by all means; it feels like Cronenberg isn't painting on a big enough canvas this time round as what we'd hope was an epic absorbing crime drama turns into what can only be described as a TV pilot for a masterpiece we'll never get to see. Like Cronenberg's approach to M. Butterfly (1993) he refuses to let the film's setting take centre stage over the characters and whereas this is admiral (and worked in the example stated here) this time it was perhaps unwise to deny Eastern Promises the scope it needed.

Viggo Mortensen is the film's saving grace and he is phenomenal as Nikolai, he steals every scene he's in and owns not only the film's most memorable scene but one of the most memorable in all of Cronenberg's oeuvre. He is a completely absorbing screen presence, a fearless actor who shows us he's got more up his sleeve even this far into an already impressive career. Fearless is all that can be said of Mortensen after the film's central set piece is through - a brutal naked two on one fight takes places in a Roman Bath house all filmed in a single take. The violence is intimate, primal, and shocking - the naked tattooed flesh a reminder of how delicate life can be. As a character Nikolai features some of the hallmarks of a Cronenberg protagonist, a repression of self, a transformation both physically and mentally. The shots of Nikolai's tattoos that cover his entire body tell of his past and feel so undeniably Cronenbergian despite being of this world and completely factual.

Eastern Promises is far from a disaster as it's miles away from average fare, Cronenberg doesn't do average, he probably never will and I'd rather see Cronenberg on a bad day than most directors at their best. This isn't up their with his best work and feels like a missed opportunity that perhaps a sequel could one day save, we can only hope for this and that Cronenberg and Mortensen will continue to work together in the future.