I have been a David Cronenberg fan ever since my college portfolio review, where the professors, looking over a piece I did in high school, asked if I had ever seen Videodrome. At that point I had already seen eXistenZ, yet didn’t know it was from the same creative mind. Ever since, I have continued my quest to see everything he has done. I’m not quite there, but over the past few years, I have been allowed to see his work on the big screen. First was his taut psychological thriller Spider and second was the film that seems to have made him a bit of a household name of late, A History of Violence. The thing with Cronenberg, though, is that he is meticulous and uncompromising in his vision. Where seeing Spider was a delight at a Dipson Theatre, Violence was much less of a good experience. I need to revisit that film in the quiet and dark of my own living room because the audience members filling that AMC screening were out of their element. They laughed at the sex, cheered at the brutality, and talked throughout. Cronenberg needs to fully envelope your mind in order to be enjoyed and thankfully his new film Eastern Promises does not disappoint in those regards. Its subtlety and nuance showed me that he has hit a bit of a renaissance and is harkening back to the days of his masterpiece Dead Ringers. If this film says anything about his current work, I need to wipe the slate clean on Violence and see it again as soon as possible.
Filmed from a script by Steven Knight, whose last indie success was the gem Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises tells the story of a world containing a very real brutality only thinly veiled from view of its London streets. When a midwife of Russian descent comes across a young girl who dies during childbirth, she can’t know that her actions will embroil her right in the middle of a mob war. The girl had with her a diary, spilling all her secrets and connections to the most notorious crime family in the city. That family is in the midst of a feud, the sons fighting each other and letting blood run thick. All the midwife wants is to make sure the baby is cared for back home in Russia, however, the diary has been read by her and her uncle; she has gone too deep to just be left alone.
Unlike most films of this genre, we aren’t shown the black and white sides of good versus evil. In the middle of everything lies the Russian boss’s chauffeur Nikolai. He is quite the enigma—fierce, cold, and calculating when put to work, yet compassionate and caring towards our heroine. Is he just the driver? Is he looking to rise in the ranks of the vory v zakone? Or is there something else beneath the surface? The entire film hinges on the believability of this one man’s actions. Had the character been played by anyone other than Viggo Mortensen, I don’t know if it would have been as successful. Talk about an actor that lays it all on the line for his art; to have an American come in and play a flawless Russian accent, perfect sounding Russian, and partake in a fight scene at a steam bath, where most non-Europeans would be too prudish to even go nude, let alone orchestrate an action sequence, is unfathomable.
Cronenberg must be credited for finding a stellar cast throughout, not just with Mortensen. In an interview I read, he says he made sure to cast his characters with actors that were great linguists; the art of accents is like that of a musicians’ ear. If true, he has a Philharmonic Orchestra at play. Vincent Cassel, a Frenchman, is impeccable with his Russian, (even more impressive because I’ve never heard him speak in anything other than a French accent), and Armin Mueller-Stahl, German or Russian or both depending on what year the map was you had for his home country, is a powerhouse at the head of the Russian family. Mueller-Stahl’s ability to turn from kindness to violence is uncanny. He is so soft-spoken and genuine that he doesn’t need to raise his voice when the rage comes to the surface. That power and force driven out so quietly only makes it more vicious.
Let’s not forget about our midwife, played by the wonderful Naomi Watts. Truth be told, she doesn’t have to do too much rather than play opposite scary men, but she does it well. As the pawn between Mueller-Stahl and Mortensen, she shows a fearlessness that can be commended. Never backing down to the mob, even after she has been threatened, shows a side to her that one wouldn’t expect. Maybe she takes too much stock in the kindness shown by Viggo’s driver, but either way, her character is written in a believable way and central to the activities at hand.
I must warn prospective viewers that this is not a blockbuster Hollywood film. You may hear about the brutality and blood, the extended fight sequence at the bath, (whose final long take of Mortensen crawling along the floor leads to a bold finale to the fight), and the crime underbelly at play, however, it is still a Cronenberg movie through and through. The pacing is very deliberate, the story’s intelligence allowed to slowly ferment and be released at the perfect moment. It may cause discomfort from the graphicness, as well as some of the bigotry on display in certain scenes, and may bore some with its sluggish progression, but what it won’t do is disappoint those coming in wanting cinematic genius. Maybe I’m biased being the fan I am of this Canadian auteur, yet I can’t help shed the worry that Eastern Promises won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival because of hometown nepotism. Having finally seen it, I think it captured the prize on its own merits.
Eastern Promises 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts star in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, an Odeon Films release.
 Viggo Mortensen (left) and Naomi Watts (right) star in David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES, a Focus Features release. Photo: Peter Mountain