Mortensen Answer To 'Promises'

Source: Chicago Tribune

© Focus Features.
An unusually strong crime thriller, Eastern Promises comes from director David Cronenberg, a meticulous old-school craftsman of a type that is becoming increasingly rare. It's difficult to describe his technique, which is vivid but not flashy. Similarly this tale, about the sinister workings of the Russian mob in modern-day London, is gripping and often spectacularly violent - more about the bathhouse murder sequence later - but never salaciously so.

The Canadian director has enjoyed a fruitful ongoing collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and while it sounds reductive to say it, the camera is almost always exactly where it should be in relation to the actors. That's the Cronenberg part of the job. As in his previous (and, I think, lesser) project, A History of Violence - which had a remarkable first hour followed by a more mundane second one - the rich, burnished palette casts a subtle glow, allowing plenty of space for dark shadows as well. Credit there belongs to Suschitzky.

Screenwriter Steven Knight wrote the very fine Dirty Pretty Things, likewise set in London. His entry-point character is Anna (the reliably excellent Naomi Watts), midwife at a North London hospital. When a young Russian teenager dies giving birth, Anna, whose ancestral roots are also Russian, discovers a diary left behind by the girl.

Anna soon learns the girl had some connection to Semyon, owner of a palatial Trans-Siberian restaurant. He is played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, superb in his whispery menace. The old gent feels threatened by the diary's contents. The way Mueller-Stahl expresses that fear is a marvel of subtlety; watch how he judges a pause when informed of the diary's existence.

This is a silky but extremely brutal group of people, part of the Vory V Zakone crime family (a real organization), whose activities include sex-trafficking. Anna's wary friendship with a member of the group, employed as a chauffeur, played by top-billed Viggo Mortensen, provides the heart of the film, depending on your definition of "heart."

Mortensen has a wonderful swagger here, and he gives Nikolai the arrogant grin of a survivor who has made it this far in life and has little to lose. The way Mortensen enters each scene, you know you're watching an actor with presence - that's the easy part - but more importantly an actor who can suggest two or three aspects of a character simultaneously. Nikolai is the moral center of this rotting bunch, but Mortensen does not unduly ennoble him.

The film owes much to the best-known American organized-crime sagas, while staking out its own subterranean London turf. Vincent Cassel plays the son of the boss, a volatile but vulnerable worm who apparently grew up watching John Cazale in the first two Godfather movies. Nikolai is the son Semyon wishes he had; Cassel's Kirill is the son he's stuck with, at least for the time being. Mortensen, who is half-Danish, hails from the U.S.; British-born Watts grew up in Australia; Mueller-Stahl is East Prussian; Cassel is French. Everyone is very much in the same film.

The showcase sequence is already famous. (The film premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.) In a grotty old bathhouse, Nikolai meets with some fellow crime family members who wish to do him harm. The ensuing melee, with a naked Mortensen careening off the walls while taking care of business, brakes right at the edge of absurdity and culminates in a stabbing that really, truly hurts. Yet the way Cronenberg and editor Ronald Sanders put this scene together, its tension is remarkable. "Let's cook," says one of the men to another as they enter the steam room. The scene does indeed cook, and while Eastern Promises works overall on more of a low, insinuating simmer, it's one of Cronenberg's most satisfying pictures.
Last edited: 20 November 2007 11:44:53