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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  1. Jana, I have already watched it when it was released in Aug-Sept.. I think it’s probably the best Hollywood movie I watched in 2007..your review was really interesting ..Well, I didnt notice the German accent in Mueller-Stahl..:)….

  2. Ich werde den Befehl ordnungsgemäß ausführen!

  3. we have it on DVD and I’ve been wanting to watch it for ages, especially, as Broadway Market (where my BF lives in Hackney) features in the film. I think it’s the opening scenes – you’ll see a shot of the Indian restaurant ‘Joy’, which is on Broadway Market (http://www.broadwaymarket.co.uk/)

    Plus, I love Cronenberg’s films, especially Videodrome.

    The only thing that’s been preventing me from watching ‘Eastern Promises’ thus far is that I can’t find the DVD :S

  4. Hi again, Pingo! Lenina: Watch if for free on http://www.joox.net if you cannot find the DVD – or at least yesterday it was there, the movies keep coming and disappearing.

    Only disadvantage of their version is that they don’t have subtitles for the Russian:


  5. Hey, joox und Stage6 sind ja geil. bist du bei del.icio.us o.ä.? Später mal wieder mehr von mir…

  6. jo, das ist ne feine sache. stage 6 ist der host, joox ist nur ein verzeichnis. irgendwie illegal das ganze, wird aber trotzdem komischerweise nicht abgestellt. bei delicious bin ich auch, aber bookmarke nicht so fleißig dort, wie ich sollte.

  7. As an aside, Viggo appears to support Dennis Kucinich!

  8. That’s good to hear – he didn’t make a too political impression to me in interviews I had read. What are Kucinich’s chances you think? (he doesn’t get any coverage _at all_ in Europe)

  9. His chances are very very slim. Exclusion from debates has not helped. Nor, I suppose, has his proposed genuine single-payer health care plan. It gets billed by the republicans as socialized medicine and is believed by many, sadly, to be a political non-starter. American voters are incredibly fickle. They vote with their gut for the “electable” candidate. It helps if he is tall, handsome, and not too threatening to anyone or anything. Obama fits the bill. Obama has become an idea about change and optimism for a lot of voters. At root, though, he is another corporate democrat, and he and Clinton’s positions on a range of issues are virtually identical.

    Glen Ford at blackagendareport.com writes:

    “Barack Obama’s corporate-made and -financed presidential campaign is the product of three distinct factors, all mitigating against Black self-determination and political cohesion: 1) corporate decisions, made a decade ago, to provide media and financial support to pliant Black Democrats that can be trusted to carry Wall Street’s water; 2) a widespread desire among whites to prove through the safe and simple act of voting that they are not personally racist, and/or to dismiss Black claims of pervasive racism in society, once and for all; 3) a huge reservoir of Jim Crow era, atavistic Black thinking that refuses to evaluate Black candidates’ actual political stances, but instead revels in the prospect of Black faces in high places. A President Obama would, of course, be the zenith of such narrow, non-substantive, objectively self-defeating visions.”

    Obama seems poised to win New Hampshire today. Kucinich will have done quite well if he can take 7-10% of the vote.

  10. Single-payer, meaning that only the person in the family who has an income has to pay? We have that in Austria, and it makes perfect sense.

    I am afraid it’s the same with elections all over the place. A good dictator, wasn’t that the best model according to Plato’s Politeia? I myself decided not to vote because I found myself stricken with a similar conundrum during the last elections in Germany: Under social democrat Schroeder cancellorship the most anti-social bills ever were passed in Germany, and he generally seemed to be in love more with this image than with getting decent work done. Angela Merkel on the other hand was (and still is) conservative, and there was no way that I was ever going to vote for another conservative government.

    But like many women and intellectuals, the thought of a female chancellor was so appealing that I almost voted for her – and it only took a month or so until Merkel was being flattered by politicians around the globe. Germany was cool all of a sudden, simply because it had a female chancellor. Achievements are still pending (with the exception of the outstanding “minister of families” Ursula von der Leyen, who is a conservative mother of seven but was the first one to implement a law in which single parents were finally no longer discriminated).

    What I mean to say is: Maybe Obama is to American voters what Merkel was to those who thought that a woman chancellor could turn this ship around. She isn’t progressive at all, but her gender might have given people reason to think she is – like Obama’s color of skind does.

    Anyways: In Europe, everybody is simply longing for an end of the Bush era, and nobody thinks that there could possibly be someone worse than Bush.

  11. Nope, single-payer as in the government pays entirely for insuring citizens and negotiates directly with the insurance companies on behalf of every citizen. Because the pool of insured is so large, the government can negotiate very efficient rates to pay. Our current for-profit system is incredibly wasteful, in addition to what we might call its ethical difficulties: 40 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever.

    Both Obama and Clinton benefit a bit from Merkelism. I feel about Clinton as you do about Merkel.

    The feeling in the US seems to be (finally finally) with Europe on ending the Bush era. Record primary turnout for the democrats is possibly an auspicious development. Obama talks about joining the world. I hope he follows through if he has the opportunity.

    I’d still send the current administration to the Hague, in toto. Kucinich, were he to win, might do it, too.

  12. […] I want you to Photoshop in Viggo Mortensen standing next to […]

  13. If you’re interested in real vory v zakone take a glance at:
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    Be sure, this unique site is the only place in the whole NET where u can see the pictures of the most renowned and influential Russian vory v zakone (thieves-in-law or legitimate thieves) of past and nowadays.

  14. Sounds interesting – too bad I cannot read the Cyrillic alphabet!

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