The young girl, we discover, was forced into prostitution and drug addiction by Semyon. She was trying to escape when she hemorrhaged and ended up in a North London hospital where Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife. Anna strikes an immediate bond with the poor infant and longs to place the child with some kind of relative. Since the girl had no identification, Anna takes the diary she finds in the girl's bag and brings it home. The diary is in Russian so she asks her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. What information she gleans leads her to Semyon's restaurant. Nikolai warns Anna to stay away but her need to discover who this girl was combined with her growing attraction to Nikolai makes it impossible for Anna to keep to a safe distance.
Vincent Cassel and Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)
The ads for the film state that "Every sin leaves a mark." This draws attention to the way the Russian gangsters use tattoos to tell the story of their lives--each tattoo records something they've done, like the mark God placed upon Cain. The tattooed hides of these gangsters is the surface that they proudly reveal to others in their secret world and it defines them. Cronenberg is also interested in the surfaces that the characters present to the outside world. Nikolai has two skins--his tattooed body which in turn is covered by slick Armani suits. He uses the outer skin to try and fool the public, while the skin underneath defines his rank within the inner circle of the gangster world. As the film progresses, we find that there is even another layer to his character. It's appropriate then that in two key scenes Nikolai strips down to expose more than just his flesh. In some ways, Nikolai has much in common with Mortensen's character in A History of Violence, who hides one persona beneath another.
Anna may not have such obvious layers, but she too presents a certain exterior image--a pretty British midwife--that hides both her Russian heritage and a dark secret of her own. Everyone in this film has one surface they want people to see as well as another one underneath. Semyon is the doting grandfather who harbors a much darker soul. And his son Kirill seems forced by the rigid codes of his mob environment to do a lot of macho posturing to hide the fact that he's gay.
But then Cronenberg has always been interested in human surfaces whether it's a body with parasites squirming beneath the skin ( They Came From Within ) or a blood-sucking phallus under Marilyn Chambers' arm ( Rabid ) or bodies mixed with technology ( eXiztenZ ). These earlier films fell within the horror genre but both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are more likely to be categorized as thrillers or violent dramas. Yet in a sense they too are dealing with horror, the horror of what people are capable of doing to each other. So although Cronenberg is not doing horror in a conventional sense, he's still showing us horrors. The brilliantly staged fight in a Turkish bath house--where a naked man is assaulted by two knife wielding thugs--has all the horror and discomfort of Hitchcock's shower scene in Psycho . Eastern Promises is a horror film hiding beneath the more refined skin of a sleek Hollywood thriller.
Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)
Eastern Promises is written by Steve Knight, who also wrote Dirty Pretty Things . Once again Knight contemplates immigrant dreams that turn into nightmares. This time young girls made into sex slaves. The dead girl's diary provides a view into just how twisted those dreams can become. Knight also conveys little details that comment on the assimilation process of other immigrants whether it's a Russian youth's desire to go to a Chelsea game or Kirill's attempt to explain that the slang "the coast is clear" has nothing to do with the beach.
Knight's script provides a much more straight forward plot than we usually get from Cronenberg. It contrasts with Chinese puzzle box of Spider or the twisty paths of eXistenZ and A History of Violence. I have to confess that the very linear and at times even obvious trajectory of the plot initially fooled me into thinking that the film was simpler than Cronenberg's other films. Yet as I began to write this review, so much of what had seemed simple began to develop richer shadings. But that's always the case with Cronenberg. His films get better upon reflection and with repeated viewings. The more you consider the details, the more they add up to something smart and complex.
A key to the film's success is the contribution of cinematographer and longtime Cronenberg collaborator Peter Suschitzky. The careful and precise composition of each shot, combined with the use of sound, insinuate something dark lurking below the often calm and polished surface. Suschitzky's poised, objective camera records some of the violence with a surprisingly calm eye that makes the violence all the more disturbing. Violence on screen needs to be one of two things: either so over the top that it severs all ties to reality or so brutal as to genuinely shock. Cronenberg's violence falls into the latter category. His violence is meant, at the very least, to stir unease. Although I singled out Suschitzky, everyone (and most have worked with Cronenberg before) delivers top notch work.
Mortensen, who can seem a little rigid and withdrawn in his performances, uses that stillness to create an unnerving presence. Nikolai says very little and displays an economy of movement. So what little he does say and do have even greater impact. Watts is best in the scenes with the actors playing her family--veteran actress Sinead Cusack as her mom and Polish director Skolimowski as her disagreeable uncle. Cassel has the most difficult task as Kirill because he has to navigate the stereotypes of playing a character who is a drunk Russian and a closeted gay. I could see how both groups might find offense in the role but Cassel is a good actor and he makes the character work within the context of this film.
Eastern Promises (rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity) reveals yet again what a master craftsman and artist Cronenberg is. His film is elegant in its ability to disturb. It serves up a twisted morality tale that flashes a fleeting and unexpected tenderness. You certainly can't say that Cronenberg is safely and comfortably resting on his laurels. This one's not for the faint of heart.
Listen to our Film Club discussion of Eastern Promises and David Cronenberg.
Companion viewing: A History of Violence , Spider , The Godfather, Dirty Pretty Things