Go watch “Eastern Promises” (this is an order!)

January 6, 2008 at 11:57 am | Posted in Film, Popular Culture | 14 Comments
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Viggo MortensenFriday night we went to see Cronenberg’s latest movie “Eastern Promises” which once more features Viggo Mortensen (also starring in A History of Violence from 2005, the previous Cronenberg film). I don’t regret the least bit that Cronenberg has over the years left the path of sexual horrors (e.g. Rabid* or The Brood**, one of the weirdest conceivable stories possible) and is now dedicating his attention to the more banal, yet more sickening horrors of what people can do to each other. To me, the latter is much more edifying.

Eastern Promises is a story about the Russian mafia in London: A 14 year-old prostitute dies during child-birth, leaving behind a daughter and a diary. A nurse (Naomi Watts) confiscates the diary and does her own research – which takes her right into the beehive of the vory v zakone (“Thieves in Law”, a term used to describe the Russian mafia). Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai or Kai, the toughest of them all, but since he is not family, he needs to carve out a career for himself by serving as a driver and henchman to Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the son of big dog Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Of course Semyon is not to pleased about the nurses’ interest in his family’s past and present business.

Mortensen refuses to be called a method actor, but nonetheless went through considerable efforts to get into character: He learned Russian, spent a couple of months in Russia and went to Russian bars in full gear, i.e. with the tattoos on his body that Russian mafiosi (supposedly) sport (and when he went there, some people, nervously, moved further away from him).

I’d like to be able to watch and listen to the movie with Russian ears and eyes, as none of the main characters is played by a Russian – yet it seems they all do a pretty good job at blending in (only Mueller-Stahl has a notable German accent in his speech).

The most memorable features of the film: On the one hand Mortensen’s acting, in particular his interaction with Cassel (whom I adore ever since I saw him in La haine) and with Watts (who gets to play the least interesting, occasionally annoying character of all – like women often do – in that she constantly does things that make you go “no, don’t, how can you be so stupid” – if this were a horror movie, she’d be the one to say ‘I’ll be right back’). On the other hand, of course, there’s Cronenberg’s superb direction, in particular his honest, straightforward approach to the representation of violence. No frills, no guns, just a naked knife fight, but what a fight! It made the whole audience moan. And Steven Knight’s screenplay has a few stunning twists in stall.

Denise Cronenberg was once more the costume designer – and we can be grateful for her job. At least I am grateful for every costume designer who does not expose us to the candy floss world of American prime time series, but instead attempts to show us real people in their natural environment.

*Rabid: A young woman develops a taste for human blood after undergoing experimental plastic surgery, and – by penetrating her victims with a small phallus growing in her armpit, turns them into rabid, blood-thirsty zombies who proceed to infect others, which turns into a city-wide epidemic.
**The Brood: A man’s wife is under the care of an eccentric psychiatrist who uses innovative and theatrical techniques to breach the psychological blocks in his patients. When their daughter comes back from a visit with mom and she’s covered with bruises and welts, the father attempts to bar his wife from seeing the daughter, but faces resistance from the secretive psychiatrist. Meanwhile, the wife’s mother and father are attacked by deformed children, and the husband begins to suspect a connection with the psychiatrist’s methods. Turns out these children are the brood of the women, children she gives birth to using an external reproductive organ whenever she gets angry.

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