© Focus Features.
Like so many stories, Eastern Promises begins with a dead prostitute. Actually, as a mob movie, it necessarily begins, before the credits, with a mob-hit neck-sliced-open-in-a-barbershop scene - always a good thing, and even better when it's shot by David Cronenberg. But after the credits, the story becomes concerned with the human cost of violence: A 14-year-old pregnant Russian sex-trade worker wanders into a London pharmacy begging for help. When she begins to haemorrhage on the floor, she is taken into hospital where Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife with her own demons to deal with, delivers the baby as the young mother dies on the delivery table, still a Jane Doe. It is only after Anna begins to pursue clues from the mother's diary, handwritten in Russian, that we begin to know Tatiana's tale, a horrific story of trafficking, violence and murder embedded deep within the maze of London's Russian immigrant community.
Spurred by her desire to find posthumous justice for Tatiana, Anna follows the breadcrumb trail to the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, an old-school Russian dining room presided over by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who may well be an enigmatic post-Soviet mob boss as well as a restaurateur, his seditious son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Kirill's driver, Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a human straight razor in a shiny suit.
From the first meeting between Anna and Nikolai, Cronenberg unpacks Eastern Promises like a child playing with a Matryoshka doll painted for dread instead of delight - or rather, the delight of dread, Cronenberg's special gift.
Of course, once Mortensen takes the screen - in his second consecutive Cronenberg film after 2005's A History of Violence - all eyes are on him. "I am just a driver," he tells Anna in an accent as sharpened as a blade, prison tattoos peeking out from under the sleeves of his gun-metal grey dress shirt as his eyes signal her unwelcomeness in this shadowy world, where, as Anna soon discovers, the ties of kin and country are knotted tightly enough to kill.
For Cronenberg, whom Hour met after the premiere of Eastern Promises in his native Toronto* last week during the film festival, ethnicity and community are "absolutely the existential underpinnings of this movie. Multiculturalism is really a study in existentialism as far as I'm concerned. For me, what multiculturalism illustrates is that reality is an invented, variable thing that takes a lot of creative communal will."
* It is important to note that though Cronenberg is a native Torontonian, Mortensen is definitely an honorary Montrealer - during all his Toronto appearances over the weekend, he wore a sharp dark suit and a Habs jersey underneath, just like when we met at TIFF in 2005 for A History of Violence.
A Russian Doll's House
The script for Eastern Promises was written by Steven Knight, Oscar-nominated for Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, which also plunged deep into the survival strategies of London's immigrant underclass. The film also indicates, even more than his previous, that Cronenberg, these days, is quite satisfied to look within the human soul for the nightmares he once found in tales of technology and science gone awry. Has the director decided that monster movies are a young man's game?
"Monsters are everybody's game," says Cronenberg, chuckling. "Armin Mueller-Stahl certainly thought of [Semyon] as a monster. When we were discussing how he would play in that scene where he takes a violin from a little girl and plays this bad, schmaltzy version [of a Russian folk tune], he said, 'All monsters are sentimental.' There are many monsters in this movie. I wouldn't say I've turned my back on horror, or on the sci-fi genre at all. You do what you do at the time that you do it, basically, because that's when the financing came together and you got people you wanted, rather than 'At this point in my career I think musical comedy is the thing to do.' Maybe guys like Spielberg can do that, but I can't."
"This is a departure only in the sense that I've not done a Russian mob film in London before, or maybe in that everybody in the film except Anna speaks with an accent when they speak English. It's the ethnicity of it that's interesting, it's the texture."
Mortensen travelled far and wide to find the tools he needed to play Nikolai. His preparation included a crash course in conversational Russian, after which he brought Cronenberg a version of the entire script, which he had personally translated into Russian.
"I met some people who were marvellous, who had backgrounds like my character, who had been in prison and were no longer involved with that life - or maybe they were, I was never sure," says the actor. "They had some of those tattoos, not as many, but some. I showed them what I had translated, and they said, 'This is good, but it's too well-spoken, this is the slang someone from this part of country would use.'"
Cronenberg, despite his obsession with texture and detail, was initially reluctant to go for a movie that is, essentially, bilingual in Russian and English.
"That happened on Lord of the Rings too, with the Elvish," recalls Mortensen. "I had days where I was only speaking Russian, and David was like, 'Jesus I didn't realize I was making a foreign film!' Then I went to Russia for two weeks, just to look around. [David said] 'I'm glad you went to Russia. I don't need to do that, but whatever you bring, we'll use."
"Viggo's cheap, he's available and he's obedient!" laughs Cronenberg. "And he's got a great chin. I knew he was a good actor when I started working with him on History of Violence, but I didn't know he was a great actor, and I think he's a great actor. And a wonderful person. With Viggo you don't just get a solo violin, you get the whole orchestra."
As well, Mortensen is evidently willing to take one for the team. The denouement of Eastern Promises includes one scene that is poised for YouTube, in which Nikolai, dressed only in a loosely wrapped towel, combats two fully dressed Chechen hit men in a steam house. So what was it like to shoot a fight scene without a body double or a stuntman, in the nude, in a tiled bathhouse?
"Slippery," he says, grinning. "David, crazy as people might think he is, is a real gentleman, and he's a good person to work for. He asked, 'How do you feel about this scene?' I didn't want [this scene] to be less realistic than the rest, so I said to do what you need to do. I didn't think he should be restrictive with the camera: I'm in a bathhouse, and there's guys throwing me around, and I'm naked. That's the way it is. It was a pretty simple decision. But I knew it would be relatively painful, and it was.
There's no pads. But the two guys playing my attackers were good - one guy was a Georgian who had been in the Russian military, and the other guy was a Turkish professional boxer. They were perfect, and perfectly painful."
Ultimately, Eastern Promises is much more than a mob flick. Themes of sin and redemption, darkness and light, and the irrevocability of violence make this a nearly perfect film, and definitely one of Cronenberg's best. This, apparently, is due to the nature of his and Mortensen's collaborative process, which brought about the most visceral of the film's many pleasures, including Nikolai's tapestry of full-body Russian prison tattoos, including a full-back replica of St-Basil's Cathedral, and the stars above the heart won by loyalty to the bratva (brotherhood). The tattoos are administered to Nikolai on screen while he lounges back in his underwear, sipping casually on an ice-cold vodka shot, which is a sight to be seen.
"You would think, 'Of course Cronenberg was drawn in by the tattooing,' but it was almost not there," says the director. "In the original script, tattooing was just alluded to. Viggo discovered a set of books called Russian Criminal Tattoo and a doc called Mark of Cain, which was about the tattooing subculture in Russian prisons, and when I saw them my mind was blown completely."
The men, however, resisted the urge to bear the marks of their cinematic synergy in real life.
"We had respect for what tattoos meant," says Cronenberg. "If, in prison, you were to have tattoos that hadn't been earned or that were misleading of the crimes you had committed, you'd probably be given a half-hour to get rid of that tattoo. Which in a prison kind of means that you have to rip skin off, or cut your arm off. And respecting that, none of us were marked."