Nekkid Viggo. Good gravy, how much easier could it be to lure my saggy baggy bum into a cinema seat than by uttering those two words? Yes, dears, much has been made of the nekkidity of Our Beloved Aragorn in this newest opus by thrill and goremeister, director David Cronenberg. Perfectly content to attend the screening based on a Southern Promise, how wonderfully surprised I was to find one of the finest collections of character renderings I’ve seen so far this year.
Eastern Promises uncovers the dark world of the Vory V Zakone, a brotherhood in the Russian Mafia operating in England. Eastern Promises doesn’t just shock us with revelations of lurid criminality, it humanises some of the perpetrators and cracks the wall that surrounds the silent existence of this shadow clan and exposes some of its traditions and practises.
The story begins with a shocking moment, as one might expect of a Cronenberg film. A young Russian girl wanders into a chemist and is barely able to whimper for help before collapsing into a pool of blood emanating from beneath her pregnant belly. The next scene in the emergency room where her daughter becomes an orphan brings in Anna (Naomi Watts), a lonely midwife who has experienced her own loss in the miscarriage of her child and flight of the father of that baby. Anna bonds instantly with the helpless orphan and does all she can to try and find the baby’s family before she’s put into the foster system. A diary left by the dead teenage mother leads Anna into the scheming, dirty-dealing, white-slaving, homophobic, murderous underground which thrives as a filthy little secret under the noses of most Londoners. That diary becomes of great interest to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the head of this chapter of the Vory clan. Despite his welcoming and charming demeanour, Semyon is as cold and ruthless as a lifetime in the Mob can make a man. His son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), does all he can to live up to his father’s expectations and always falls short, often with disastrous consequences. Both father and son rely on their faithful driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to protect and clean up behind Kirill. Once Nikolai’s and Anna’s paths cross, Nikolai’s loyalties and morals are tested after he is chosen to mete the fate that Semyon has decided upon for the unwitting midwife and her family, and the betrayal that Nikolai himself endures at Semyon’s hands.
For such a desperate premise, I consider Eastern Promises David Cronenberg at his warmest and fuzziest. It’s downright sentimental; the love the midwife has for the orphan, the closeness of her supportive family, the love the gang leader father has for his hapless son, the moral lines the stone-faced driver won’t cross, the affection between the son and the driver (- more on that later), and the affection for their culture that all the Russians characters share. The voiceover of the deceased young mother reading from her diary throughout the film is very effective; revealing the innocent girl’s betrayed hopes and descent into hell. The cinematography shows us an endlessly gray, rainy and dreary London, which so perfectly captures the legendary Russian melancholia Cronenberg’s characters exhibit. Don’t get me wrong, for all the warmth, this is a Cronenberg film and there’s plenty of the brutal. Knives are a big weapon of choice for these mobsters. The show stopping scene of Nikolai being sliced and stabbed like a Christmas ham whilst fighting for his life against two hit men in a Russian bath house will certainly satisfy those expecting Cronenbergian (- like that?) shock and awe. The shock mostly having to do with the fact that the fight is very roughly rendered and real looking, and the awe because Nikolai is butt-nekkid throughout the entire fight. Brave, that Viggo is; he’s done full-frontal before (- 1991’s The Indian Runner), but this is an unflattering, graphic, good five minutes or so of hand to hand, life or death combat.
That fight is, of course, the conversation piece, but Eastern Promises’ acting performances are simply remarkable. Armin Mueller-Stahl’s mastery and control as the simultaneously paternal and deadly Semyon was the standout to me. Semyon runs his restaurant like a the last outpost of a long ago Russia, singing folk songs to celebrate an elderly patron’s 100th birthday, then coldly ordering the murder or someone who might’ve cast aspersions on his son’s sexuality. To see that grandfatherly face go from warm and cuddly to Siberian frost right through an ice-cold eye is one of the most shudder-inducing effects in the film, yet the depth Mueller-Stahl gives this loving father and underworld potentate makes his nefarious plans comprehendible, if not condonable. His Semyon is a villain for the books, kids, downright Vaderesque in his replete evilness.
Viggo Mortensen delivers his best performance to date here. His Nikolai initially seems a callous, uncaring lackey; smug face as hard as the hair product that keeps his slickback immobile, twisting amused lips as he watches Anna’s attempts to deal with situations she was never meant to understand. Nikolai forges a bond and tenuous attraction to Anna, first over Anna's old Russian motorbike which belonged to her father, and again as he reluctantly attempts to save Anna’s head from slowly going under the hot water she doesn’t even know she’s in. The chiseled mask hides everything perfectly, his every thought or prevarication unreadable. Bit by bit, we see that Nikolai isn’t actually a gargoyle and has a story and purpose of his own (- no, not the one tattooed all over his body), you see how very carefully he’s had to work to keep that stony visage and all the contradictions that lie under it. It’s a wonderful performance full of nuance and humour. I really hope that come the spring, both Mueller-Stahl and Mortensen are remembered for this film.
Vincent Cassel is wonderful as Kirill, the ne’er-do-well son of Semyon, who will never fill his ruthless father’s shoes. Splayed out in lots of designer leathers and frosted blonde hair, his very looks get him the side-eye in the mob world. Kirill loves the perks of being the mob boss’s son, but can’t make the hard decisions and is simply a misfit and a liability to be protected. The kinetic energy Cassel brings to all of his performances is harnessed and channeled perfectly here as Kirill loves the power and the good life, but can’t look too much deeper into what he is being bred to be. He also can’t bear to face the reality of his bond with Nikolai, the only person he trusts. In a world where merely suggesting someone might be gay will get your throat slit, it’s inconceivable for Kirill to act on his feelings for his confidant. There is a remarkable scene where both men are in a brothel and Kirill orders Nikolai to shag one glaze-eyed prostitute in front of him (- allegedly to prove Nikolai isn’t gay). The subtle look of torment, then appalled longing on Kirill’s face as Nikolai does his duty, is a magnificent moment for Cassel, winding up with Kirill giving a sarcastic ovation once it’s over.
This brings me to another aspect of the film. I thought it was one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever seen. The crackling chemistry between Mortensen and Cassel, which, sadly, doesn’t include Naomi Watts’s Anna, is undeniable. You never learn if Kirill’s attraction to Nikolai is ever returned, but Nikolai is canny enough to use that attraction for his own purposes. Not to be all spoily, but for all that you think there might have been a budding relationship between the boy and girl leads, the Norman Rockwell-esque ending features no males in sight.
Eastern Promises is a gripping powerhouse of wonderful performances, and original, gutsy storytelling all pulled together by a sure steady hand. Well done, Mr. Cronenberg.
~ Mighty Ganesha
Sept 14th 2007
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