Eastern Promises Review ****

Source: Newsday

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David Cronenberg's A History of Violence was one of the best recent movies that, by today's saturation standards, next to nobody saw. Set in a farmland backwater of Indiana, it starred Viggo Mortensen as a clean-living family man who guns down two vicious thugs in his diner and inadvertently exposes a cautiously concealed past.

For the better part of his mesmerizing new thriller, we are hoodwinked into thinking that Cronenberg has moved into new territory. While Eastern Promises also opens with a grisly gangland murder, the sun-washed open spaces of the rural Midwest have given way to the dank, rainy streets of London in December; the homogeneous, white-bread locals of middle America have been replaced by a hodgepodge of urban emigre Russians.

At some point, however, it becomes clear that we're seeing a variation on a theme: With Eastern Promises, Cronenberg comes down on the other side of the same dark and dazzling coin he flipped in the air with A History of Violence.
Mortensen once again plays a man who is not quite who he makes himself out to be, the key difference here being that his Russian-born character, Nikolai Luzhin, wears his violent inclinations on his sleeves from the outset.

Luzhin is a driver and part-time undertaker for a Russian crime family commandeered by Semyon (a brilliantly slinky Armin Mueller-Stahl), an elegant, white-haired snake who shanghais women into prostitution from behind the lace-and-red-velvet cover of a high-end Russian restaurant. Luzhin's entree into this world comes through his carousing buddy, Semyon's loose-cannon son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

Standing in for the honest-working faction of the Russian community is Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital who lives with her assimilated mother (Sinéad Cusack) and her Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). When Anna attends to a 14-year-old Russian girl who dies in childbirth, the girl's diary leads Anna to the restaurant door of Semyon.

"You're in a very wrong place," Nikolai warns the interfering midwife, who is determined to get the baby to its deceased mother's relatives. "You belong in there with nice people. Stay away from people like me."

As with A History of Violence, Cronenberg is throwing nice people into the same room with people like Semyon, career criminals with highly ritualized (read: grotesque) ways of dealing with threats to the family business.

Where the earlier film portrayed that clash of worlds with a flamboyant irony sympathetic to its graphic-novel roots, Eastern Promises has a grim but thrilling literary integrity that reflects the m.o. of its writer, Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), one of the sharpest screenwriting voices to emerge from the United Kingdom in the new millennium.

On many levels, Eastern Promises is more the writer's film than the director's. That is, until a scene of breathtaking brutality late in the film, when Luzhin is taken by surprise while lounging in a bathhouse and launches into a gruesome fight for his life. Mortensen's thunderous nude exhibition is made all the more astonishing for being the first and only eruption of his character's volcanic reserve.

The rest of the way, the actor wears a cryptic Frankenstein-monster mask that comes alive in airless bursts of Russian-accented English, revealing an identity stitched together from bits and pieces of a history that may or may not have happened. Whether in cloaked repose or naked defense, Mortensen dares you to take your eyes off of him.
Last edited: 30 October 2007 15:17:25
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