Right from its opening moments, Eastern Promises flows with painful, unruly rites of parturition, initiation, desecration and earthly departure. It opens with a gruesome killing, a premature birth and the tragic, confused expiration of the girl whose diary will come to haunt the film and its personae. It features bodies being branded, decapitated, displayed and disguised, as well as an attempted assassination in which the intended victim fights for his life while stark naked, a bravura sequence worth the asking price alone.
If the above reads as a particularly body conscious series of images, it’ll come as little surprise to savvy filmgoers that the director of Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg. But what’s so fascinating about Cronenberg’s progress is the way in which his films virtually always reveal something of his distinctive approach and ongoing preoccupations even when their milieus seem virtually antithetical to his established horror/sci-fi background. Set amidst London’s Russian underworld, Eastern Promises would appear even farther from Cronenberg’s comfort zone than A History of Violence, yet he brings to the proceedings more than confidence –he brings the careful gaze of one of the most passionately curious and unusual minds in movies.
Hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) has in her care a newborn without a mother or even a name. All Anna has to assist her in identifying the child is a diary written in Russian and a business card that leads her to a fatherly, blue-eyed restaurateur named Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The more sinister aspect of Seymon makes itself known soon enough, not the least through Anna’s increasing familiarity with Seymon’s obnoxious, alcoholic and reckless son Kirill (a particularly flamboyant Vincent Cassel) and the family’s stoic chauffer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The diary and its inflammatory contents serve as a sort of Pandora’s box, functioning both as Anna’s entrée into a dark, socially cloistered realm of immigrant crime, and as a way of flushing Nikolai out of this darkness and into a conundrum of urgent moral dilemma.
Written by Stephen Knight, Eastern Promises is a taut, layered thriller akin in many regards to his terrific script for Dirty Pretty Things. Cronenberg’s points of connection are so varied and surprising, his reigning in of the material so clean that, as with Spider in particular, the places where the screenwriter’s hand departs and the director’s takes over are untraceable. Pleasingly, Cronenberg’s work of the 2000s is consistently characterized by this honing his own voice through fruitful collaboration rather than strict –and potentially stifling– traditional hyphenate autuerism.
Yet Cronenberg’s most notable partner-in-crime these days is surely Mortensen, who gives a flawlessly committed performance here as an intriguing variation on the man who can’t escape his violent past he already inhabited so deftly in A History of Violence. Though he’s introduced as a vampire-groomed thug who unflinchingly butts out smokes on his tongue before going about his duties snapping frozen digits off a corpse like so many fish fingers, his Nikolai is a collage of masks and interior conflicts that emerge gradually as his allegiance to Seymon and his involvement in Anna’s quest become mutually compromised. More even than Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Mortensen has become Cronenberg’s ideal alter ego, an impressively pliable, imposingly muscular junction of raw physicality, prowling anxiety, complicated sexuality and shrewd intellect. And, in any case, he’s just amazing in this film.
We can only hope for more from this pairing, though the truth is that where Cronenberg might go from here is delightfully unpredictable and may or may not include further suitable roles for Mortensen. Perhaps he’ll borrow a page from the Scorsese-De Niro book and allow Mortensen to mature into a genuine chameleon –a feat which in itself would fit nicely into Cronenberg’s ongoing study of malleable identity and the monster within.