Monday, February 11, 2008


Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel.
Director: David Cronenberg
Runtime: 100 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Crime

There’re few certainties in life, fewer so in cinema. You can take my word for this – there aren’t many who can construct an action sequence, which lands a punch in your guts you would be gasping for breath, better than David Cronenberg. Neither are there many who end their films as well as he can. As far as these certainties are concerned, the film is standard Cronenberg fare, which means it is quite brilliant.
Eastern Promises has those very typical Cronenberg-ian characters fascinating to no end. He covers them in layers peeling them off, one by one. It feels wonderful to say this – this film, and I can safely extend that to any Cronenberg film, isn’t about what its people are but how they are what they are. We always have this eerie feeling underneath our skins that always knows the true color of the person, and it is a joy to discover more colors beyond them. It isn’t a mafia film as much as it is about the people inhabiting the mafia. I was reminded of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and how it quite brilliantly combined the two facets of the gangster genre. Cronenberg, as I’ve read in an interview, isn’t even interested in the mechanics of the mafia. That he still brings so much authenticity (you would want to visit here), by means of dialogues, accents, and in this case tattoos is, well, our joy.
I wouldn’t want to supply too much by way of plot. Tatiana, a pregnant prostitute of 14, with needle-marks all over her arms turns up at the hospital where Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife. 23:13, the mother dies. 23:14, the baby girl is born. There’s nothing remotely flashy in the scene, calling upon our attention. But in that Cronenberg way, the mood, the color, the score, the frame, all unite to register their presence. When we’re way past the film, it crawls under our skin, and in our minds, and we feel it. As t turns out, Anna gets hold of a diary that poses a grave threat to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the London boss of the Russian mafia Vory V Zakone (thieves in law). His ‘driver’ is Nikolai (Mortensen), the ruthless Russian born killer. It is him and Anna whom we follow.
In that dark interiors of the Russian underworld, the deceptive performances people put on is the key. There’re rich characters here, and the actors are even more so. You would often get the faintest of sensation that a person in that room is betraying the mask he has put on, but the brilliant deception at hand lets them off the hook. It is a great joy, you know, when the twists and turns aren’t beneficiaries of a writer’s assortment of tricks, but one borne out of the depths of human nature. These actors play their characters in that fashion, and the person inside us somewhere understands and feels the simmering lava beneath that exterior. Mortensen and Cronenberg, it sure is turning out to be one terrific actor-director combination, bettered only by DiCaprio-Scorsese I guess. Just in case his performance leads you to the internet wondering, no, Mortensen isn’t of Russian origin. And that is the least of this mesmerizing performance. Pay attention to the way he drags those dead eyes. That is him in most films, but here it is exaggerated. The thousand-yard stare is a reflection of the internal state of mind. This drag of his, I guess, belongs more towards the external. Naomi Watts doesn’t have too much by way of scenes, but she’s just about wonderful to add to this moral conundrum. Anna is a good person, but there’s something disturbing about the ease with which she takes the decision on the baby. I was reminded of Gone Baby Gone, and this film here without supplying any lines or sequences for it, just leaves us a bit unsettled because that decision of hers leaves us, well, satisfied. It has always amazed me how Watts manages to bring so much heart to a scene. Even in her most trite characters, she excels by providing us a person. Then there’s that wonderful German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, Night on Earth), his Semyon the best performer in the room, outside of Nikolai. What surprised me though was Vincent Cassel finally being given something deserving of his talent. Hollywood always reduces this actor to a stereotype, and he always seems to oblige. Beneath that tough exterior is an extremely vulnerable gangster, and it is a remarkable thing what inspires these people to continue the show, day in and day out.
In Eastern Promises Cronenberg has created one of the best crime films in recent memory. The focus is always on the people inhabiting this world, and not what they do but how they react to what they do. There’re sequences breathtakingly tranquil you would want them to continue forever. It is a unique world where the lines between good and evil couldn’t have been murkier. Apart from Uncle Stefan, I’m not sure if a single character could be safely classified as good. Yet, the film is so efficiently constructed its subtlety might be mistaken for a good genre effort. Speaking of construction, there’s the most brilliant action sequence in this film, which I’m confident enough to claim to be the single best action sequence of this decade. And I wouldn’t utter a single word about it.
Pay attention to the final sequence, as Nikolai sits on a couch with Tatiana’s voice-over. Look at those eyes then. It’ll give you a pretty good idea why he does what he does.


Sadanand Renapurkar said...

The famous action sequence!!...yes...I noticed that and loved it too....also some brutality...Berardinelli calls it typical Cronenberg sequence......I'm searching for his The History of Violence ....Though I did find the part about Anna quite banal and some unnecessary close ups of the newly born, everything about the baby and mother was conveyed already(like in 4 months...the dining scene was stretched unnecessarily)...anyway, brilliant film!

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Kindly consider Control(2007 Movie) for reviewing. It's based on Ian Curtis, the lead singer of rock band Joy Division.Great Movie.After Almost Famous this one secured some of my permanent memory space.And it's hard to go wrong(with the spirit of the band and the accuracy of recreating sets and characters)when the bands' photographer is Director and Ian's wife is one of the producers.Anyway, Sorry if I'm giving out too much.I'll stop.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

For details check out:

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