A Gangster's Tale

Source: Detroit Free Press

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With A History of Violence, filmgoers rediscovered director David Cronenberg and his immense talents as a filmmaker.

Eastern Promises introduces them to the pre-Dead Ringers Cronenberg, the one who never let his metaphors and visual prowess overwhelm his storytelling. Eastern Promises is a straightforward, straight-up Russian gangster movie whose primary achievement is making the Russian gangster underworld feel exotic and menacing.

Set in the same multi-culti London that writer Steven Knight depicted so vividly in his screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises stars Naomi Watts as Anna, a midwife working in a central London hospital, who lives with her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and the cantankerous brother (played by the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) of her late Russian-immigrant father. When a 14-year-old prostitute dies giving birth, Anna becomes preoccupied with the fate of the baby and the circumstances that led the girl to her ward, and surreptitiously claims the girl's diary, written in Russian.

When her uncle stubbornly refuses to translate it, saying Anna has no business robbing "the bodies of the dead," she uses a business card that was tucked inside to lead her to an ornate Russian restaurant owned by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon's eagerness to help Anna with the diary - he makes an unexpected appearance at her hospital - creeps her out and, as her mother has warned, she is soon in over her pretty, naive little head. "This is not our world," says her worried mother. "We are ordinary people."

Fortunately, Anna finds a protector of sorts in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is working his way up in Semyon's Trans-Siberian mob, babysitting Semyon's volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). When Anna first asks him questions, he has no answers: "I'm a driver," he says. "I go straight, I turn right, I turn left." But he is quickly exposed as something more, when a trip to a bathhouse finds him - in what is certain to be the year's most talked-about and most convincingly choreographed fight scene - fending off two knife-wielding attackers without even a towel to protect him.

Cronenberg could have made this movie without Mortensen, but it wouldn't have been the same movie. The actor has cloaked himself in hundreds of years of dark Eastern grudges and rivalries, the same way Nikolai has covered his body in prison tattoos, markings that tell the story of a life spent in one struggle after another. The significance of the tattoos will be no surprise to the Cronenberg faithful, who have seen him use body transformation and transmutation as a symbol in film after film.

But according to the director, it was Mortensen who introduced this element to the film, which would make him a perfect collaborator. Before Eastern Promises, Cronenberg had only once before used the same actor on two films. Jeremy Irons starred in Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly. One roots for Mortensen to break that record.
Last edited: 19 November 2007 14:17:28
© Detroit Free Press.