Regular readers of UNCUT will recall that Cronenberg’s last film, A History Of Violence, was our Film Of The Year in 2005. This, set among the Russian mob relocated to London’s East End, is something of a companion piece, and further proof that Cronenberg is enjoying a third act revival in his fortunes.
The film’s written by Steve Knight, who also wrote the script for Stephen Frears’ film, Dirty Pretty Things. It’s located in a roughly similar milieu, of immigrants in London. Eastern Promises also finds Cronenberg re-teaming with his A History Of Violence leading man, Viggo Mortensen, here playing Nikolai, a driver for the Russian crime organisation, Vory V Zakone, who’re headed up by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell), who’s apparently channelling the same levels of volatility and belligerence last seen in Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.
Our entry point into this world comes from Anna (Naomi Watts), a second-generation Russian who works as a nurse. She assists the delivery of a baby to a 14 year-old Russian girl, who dies giving birth. Anna takes it upon herself to trace the girl’s relatives, via her diary, which eventually finds her encountering the Vory V Zakone.
If A History Of Violence was a commentary on role of violence in American society and culture, an exploration on shifting identity and a cracking thriller, Eastern Promises riffs on similar themes. But it says something about the population churn in the capital that, 10 years ago, an East End crime thriller would have starred Vinnie Jones and a bunch of bullet-headed Krays wannabees. Now, it’s the Russians. And they’re pretty fearsome. Anna finds herself confronting sex trafficking, drugs and murder. Watching the poor teenage Russian girls, dead-eyed and listless, who’re paraded in front of Kirill and Nikolai in one scene, I’m reminded of Lukas Moodysson’s unforgettably bleak Lilya 4-Ever.
Both A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises explore the impact of violence on the family unit — here, it’s the relationship between Anna, her mother and uncle, as well as Semyon and Kirill. Cronenberg and Knight also address notions of loyalty — Vory V Zakone means thieves-in-law but, typically, there’s very little honour to these men, and what binds them seems very easy to unravel.
Viggo, of course, is excellent, as Nikolai — stoical, calm, emotionally disengaged. As with a Cronenberg film, things are a little tricksy, so I won’t explain further.
There’s moments of extreme violence — throats are cut, a corpse has its finger tips removed to avoid identification, one poor unfortunate has a knife stabbed into his eye — levened by some cruel, dark humour. In one scene, naked and tattooed, Nikolai has to fight off two hitman in a Turkish bath, which borders on the camp.
Cronenberg shoots the whole thing in a grainy, understated palette, showing a hazy, nocturnal London, both frightening and strangely alluring. After faltering with Spider, he seems to have found his feet again. And that he seems to be happy proding and poking around the crime movie genre is no bad thing. After all, if it stops Guy Ritchie making another Right Royal Barrel Of Cockney Monkeys, we can only applaud.
Eastern Promises opens this year’s London Film Festival before it gets a full release on October 26.