Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review - Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's new film Eastern Promises opens with two contrasting scenes of bloodshed. The first occurs in a London barbershop, the hapless victim being held down by one man as another slices his throat open with a straight razor. The scene then shifts to elsewhere in the city, as a barefoot young girl staggers into a chemist and asks for help in the few words of English she has, before passing out on the floor with blood dripping from between her legs. This is Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a 14 year-old Russian girl who is about to give birth. She is rushed to hospital where the doctors manage to save the child but not the mother, and Anna (Naomi Watts), an English nurse of Russian descent, is left holding the baby. She is also left holding Tatiana's diary, which she found in the dead girl's belongings, but her attempts to get this diary translated lead her into trouble.

Eventually, Anna traces Tatiana's rape back to the Vory V Zakone, a criminal brotherhood headed up by restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel); but the most interesting character she encounters is the family chauffer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), and it is he who gradually becomes the film's central figure. The reuniting of David Cronenberg with Mortensen will undoubtedly prompt many viewers to compare Eastern Promises with the director's brilliant A History of Violence, but such a comparison would be unfair and inappropriate. A History of Violence had a tightly wound narrative which gradually took on extra layers of complexity and ambiguity as it progressed, while Eastern Promises is just a thriller, and not a particularly special one at that.

That's not to say that the film is devoid of special moments – one scene in particular is already being hailed as a classic – but it generally feels pedestrian and unconvincing. Its main flaws lie with the story provided by Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind Stephen Frears' 2002 drama Dirty Pretty Things. The plot unfolds in an oddly conventional and unexciting way, hitting most of the expected beats, and Knight has a tendency to hint at background details, which either have little bearing on the main narrative or are left frustratingly unexplored. Knight also gives the film a fuzzy sense of perspective; Anna's amateur detective work initially appears to be the prime focus of the narrative, but the film then makes Nikolai its main protagonist – leaving Watts somewhat underused – and all the while an ill-advised, cliché-ridden voiceover gives us English excerpts from Tatiana's diary.

This is mediocre stuff, but it's a testament to Cronenberg's level of craftsmanship that he occasionally brings it to life. The film's show-stopping sequence occurs in a Turkish bathhouse, when a naked Nikolai is ambushed by two knife-wielding assassins, and he fights them off in a brutal encounter which is shot and edited with ferocious vigour. It's a trademark Cronenberg vignette; but despite the customary skill with which he directs this picture – and Eastern Promises is classily made throughout – I'm not sure if he was the right man for the job in the first place. Throughout his career Cronenberg has been fascinated with the intimate details of his characters rather than the places they live in – even in A History of Violence he painted the setting in broad strokes, intentionally suggesting a bland and clichéd vision of small town America – but Eastern Promises requires something more than that. The director doesn't make much of his London setting, shooting in dingy backstreets and coming up with a mostly anonymous view of the city; and he doesn't really delve into the culture and rituals of the Vory V Zakone in the way a filmmaker more interested in such things – a Scorsese or Coppola, for example – might have done. Stephen Frears delivered a much more authentic and intriguing vision of immigrant life in London in Dirty Pretty Things, and nothing in Eastern Promises ever feels as immersive, atmospheric or true as Cronenberg's last London-set feature, the superb and sorely undervalued Spider.

The characterisation is a little on the slim side as well, although the actors bring a lot of conviction to the film (perhaps too much, in Vincent Cassel's case). Naomi Watts is fine as the intrepid heroine, but this is one of the least demanding roles she has ever been given (compare this to her knife-edge performance in the forthcoming Funny Games), and her character doesn't really develop beyond a certain point. The ever-reliable Armin Mueller-Stahl brings a sense of understated menace to his acting, but there's nothing understated about the man playing his offspring. As Kirill, Vincent Cassel is usually drunk, shouting, or drunk and shouting (with a loose grasp on his accent), and the homoerotic subtext in his relationship with Nikolai is hardly played at a subtle level.

It's Mortensen who holds the film together, though, and his performance is the best reason to see Eastern Promises. Who could have guessed that this actor would be such a perfect match for this director? His exceptional display in A History of Violence was a quantum leap ahead of anything he had delivered in the past, and he is riveting in a different way here. As Nikolai, Mortensen gives a fantastically controlled, detailed and physical performance; every movement and gesture seems considered and pointed, and he speaks the language as if to the manner born. All of the best moments in the film belong to him: the knife fight, for sure, but also the cold manner in which he chops up a body early in film, the way he extinguishes a cigarette on his tongue, or that chilling "throat cut" gesture he makes at Anna's Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski). Cronenberg's latest picture lacks suspense, excitement and surprises – and the climax is a mess – but Mortensen's Nikolai almost makes it work. He's the only character who feels like he exists beyond the confines of this narrative, and given what we learn about his backstory late in the picture, Eastern Promises ultimately feels like a frustrating prologue to a far more interesting movie.