on 20 December 2007
With 'History of Violence' David Cronenberg initially seemed to have made a change of direction from the 'body horror' genre which he popularised. On closer examination however, both that film and 'Eastern Promises' - which share Viggo Mortensen in the lead role - graft classic Cronenberg themes on to more prosaic contexts. There is less pseudo-science and fantasy about these films (the former set in suburbia and the latter in the London criminal underworld) but they are no less powerfully subversive for that. Cronenberg has claimed that his films should be viewed "from the point of view of the disease", and it is the corruptive nature of criminal violence that provides the physical stigma in both these films.
In 'Eastern Promises', Vigo Mortensen's menacing Russian Mafia goonda Nikolai's body is heavily marked by the 'vory v zakone' tattoos that tell a story of a life in crime. Cronenberg films these marks as dark, almost cancerous stains, which is redolent of his earlier works such as The Fly. The violence is again unflinchingly visceral, in particular in a centre-piece fight in which a naked Nikolai fends off a knife attack in a Turkish bath. The vivid lacerations of the skin force the the viewer to confront their debilitating physical impact. Imagine if Cronenberg had filmed Reservoir Dogs, he certainly would not have spared us Mr Blonde's severing of the cop's ear, but rather given it a close up.
'Eastern Promises' begins with a hemorrhaging fourteen-year-old Ukranian prostitute dying in childbirth. The baby survives, but its violent eruption also suggests that hallmark of the 'body horror' genre, the alien bursting from the stomach in Ridley Scott's classic. The fact that the baby is the product of rape on a virgin compounds this notion of the physical contamination. The purity of the prostitutes' naked bodies are shown in stark contrast throughout the film to the sinewey and beastial tatooed torsoes of Nikolai and Kirill.
Written by Steve Knight, whose previous credits include Stephen Frears' decent 'Dirty Pretty Things', 'Eastern Promises' is a darker, more claustrophobic film. Its characters undergo torturous physical - even spiritual - transformations in a way that deliberately undermines and clouds its conclusion. One suspects the Russian accents have been overdone in places, but this is as unsettling and provocative as cinema gets.
I'm actually not sure how to describe this movie, but I'll give it my best shot. First of all, Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as Nikolai, a driver and enforcer for the Russian Mafia, and full time baby-sitter to Kirill, the wayward son of Mafia boss Semyon. He's one cold, emotionless dude when he has to be, but has a human side that peeps out ever so often from behind that steely, chiseled mug.
Vincent Cassel (Kirill) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon) are also extremely convincing, the former as a violent drunk and the latter as the charming and affable, but very cruel father. Naomi Watts doesn't light up the screen and steal the show as she normally does, but it could be the depressing role of Anna, a midwife who delivers a baby for a fourteen year old girl who doesn't make it off the operating table.
Anne Frank may have left a more famous diary, but the diary of the unfortunate young woman is so revealing that some people are prepared to kill to keep the contents from being brought to light.
Fascinating in some aspects, such as the story behind the tattoos, and graphic in quite a few others, including a memorable scene with a totally nude Viggo battling against guys with linoleum knives, I found some parts a bit too long and drawn out, and some too predictable.
Never-the-less, the acting, the casting and the intensity of this drama make it extremely watchable (if you like this movie genre), and although it isn't going to be one of my favorite movies, it certainly is worth mentioning here.
Eastern Promises is directed by David Cronenberg and written by Steven Knight. It stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Music is by Howard Shore and cinematography by Peter Suschitzky.
When a Russian teenager dies in childbirth, midwife Anna Khitrova (Watts) tries to seek out any relatives so that the baby will not be put into the foster care system. Following leads written in the dead girl's harrowing diary, Anna is led to mysterious Russian chauffeur Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen) and the underworld of the Russian Mafia.
After the critical and box office success of A History of Violence in 2005, it was no surprise to see director Cronenberg and lead man Mortensen team up again for another violent thriller. Perhaps less surprising is that it's equally as great, more proof positive that even when the great director goes mainstream he's still making powder-keg cinema.
Set in London, a seamy London at that, Eastern Promises takes a look at a criminal underworld thriving beneath the city's glossy veneer. This isn't about the rat-a-tat of machine guns, this is slow and methodical criminality, where all roads lead to pain and misery for anyone not in league with, or on the wrong side of, the Vory V Zakone. Cronenberg never lets the film go up a pace, which is absolutely to the film's benefit, even as violence is rendered, and body horror (hey this is Cronenberg after all) comes our way, it's cloaked in a controlled melancholy that just pulses with sinister beats.
Steven Knight's screenplay has a few tricks up its sleeve, not only on revelation terms, but also thematically as loyalty and family dynamics come under the microscope. There's also strong themes of identity and sexuality, again these are things that appeal to the director and he deftly inserts them into his pot-boiling conundrum. While the moral questions that Eastern Promises asks, are not answered by the makers, it is us the audience left to ponder such moral quandaries.
The look is terrific, steely neo-noir photography for city streets and scapes, pronounced reds and greens scorch the eyes in certain interiors, and muted cold colours adorn the screen for moments of murky doings. Of course tech credits are no good if the central acting performance is off form, but once again for Cronenberg, Mortensen comes up trumps with a clinical portrayal. He looks perfect physically, with his torso adorned with striking tattoos, but also his mannerisms are magnetic, effortlessly shifting between ruthless mob employee and sensitive humanitarian. He also has to play his cards close to his chest, and he does so with great skill, while his Russian accent holds superbly. Cronenberg and Mortensen researched the topic vigorously, and it shows.
Elsewhere the other actors also provide colourful and emotionally smart portrayals. Watts is a bit short changed with the character as written, and it's an irk that it never gives the actress more meat to chew on. Yet she draws you into Anna's stoic belief system with ease and she does a rather ace British accent as well. Stahl is just terrifying, the embodiment of a Godfather figure prepared to enact unspeakable crimes while ensuring the codes of family and the mob are never tampered with. And on the outer edges, with a tricky characterisation that calls for quick shifts of temperament, is Cassel, the presence and a jumping-bean bouncing around Mortensen's calm assuredness. While in secondary support it's great to see Donald Sumpter used to good effect as the senior police officer in charge of investigations.
From the early sight of blood splattering on the floor of a pharmacy, to a most brazen and astonishingly raw fight staged in a Turkish bath house, Eastern Promises is never dull or what you could term normal. And yet this is why Cronenberg is still one of the finest auteur directors out there, because Eastern Promises always plays out as frighteningly real. 8/10
Vory v zakone - Thieves in law.
This movie left me very pleased, the script is very good, nothing is over explained but every thing connects. There is a constant threat of menace all through the movie and the portrait of the Russian mafia is dark and sinister, not the men to be trifled with, in fact stay away.
So it is no place for a warm hearted midwife looking for the origins of a new born baby. Her investigations take her face to face with the inner circle of the mafia, a place no one should go. Drugs, assassinations, human trafficking, prostitution - it is a dark world that shuns the light and attention.
With strong preformances by Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel it is the script that shines through. The directing is good and when there is violence it is no holds barred and all the time the potential for more is just below the surface.
It is a good and believable film. Highly recommended.
on 14 December 2014
REVIEWED VERSION: 2008 Universal Studios US Blu-Ray
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Donald Sumpter, Jerzy Skolimowski, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sinead Cusack
Production: US/UK/CD 2007
Set in London, England, a pregnant Russian teenager, Tatyana, is rushed to the hospital after she collapses bleeding at a pharmacy. The doctors are only able to save her child. Anna Khitrova, a midwife of Russian descent, finds Tatyana's diary among her belongings and decides to find Tatyana's relatives with the help of shifty Russian restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who also happens to be the boss of the Russian mob.
Tatyana soon finds herself in mixed up in a bloody turf war between the Russian and the turkish mob.
THE PROS & CONS
I was pleasantly surprised by EASTERN PROMISES, expecting a halfway decent film, but not the masterpiece it actually is.
A lot is owed to the excellent director, Cronenberg, who delivers an authentic and unflinching portrayal of the mob underworld, the excellent screenplay by Steven Knight, and most of all, the great actors, especially Viggo Mortensen who delivered his best performance since THE LORD OF THE RINGS epics.
There is an amazing amount of detail in the film, from the tattoos and the history behind them to the lines used and the detailed depiction of the Russian mob members. Also the mobsters don't use guns, they use knives, linoleum knives to be exact, which has a practical reason: if ever stopped on the street by the cops, they could say they were linoleum cutters.
EASTERN PROMISES was critically acclaimed and grossed $56.1 million, and is widely regarded as one of the "top 10" films of 2007. I would go even further and call it one of the top 10 films of the decade.
Cronenberg retained some of his trademarks, the explicit - but infrequent - violence, which is surprisingly graphic for an R rated movie, especially the notorious bathhouse scene as well as the superb score written by Howard Shore.
Great cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, who also worked with Cronenberg on A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and other movies.
As I mentioned before, it is Mortensen's performance that sticks out in this film. I liked his authentic Russian accent and the way he played his character. The other cast members are also great: Naomi Watts as Anna in the lead was a perfect choice, as were Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon) and Donald Sumpter (Yuri).
I can only highly recommend EASTERN PROMISES if you like demanding, well-thought out and adult thrillers with brilliant plot twists and great characters. All this speaks for EASTERN PROMISES.
ON A SIDE NOTE
- the bathhouse fight scene was choreographed with the actual actors and without stuntmen, the actors had to train in specific fighting styles chosen for their characters and they took two days to shoot
- Viggo Mortensen traveled alone and without a translator to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Ural to prepare for his role
- the Russian gang shown in this film, vory v zakone (thieves in law), is a real gang. Just like in real life the members of the gang don't use guns, but weapons
- first David Cronenberg movie not to be shot in his native Canada
Feature running time: 100:33 mins. (uncut)
Rating: R (MPAA) / 18 (BBFC)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 / 16:9
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English HoH, French and Spanish
Extras: Secrets and Stories Featurette (10:31), Marked for Life Featurette (6:41), Two Guys Walk Into a Bath House Featurette (1:55), Watts on Wheels Featurette (0:55)
Region: Region Free
Picture quality: 5/5
Audio quality: 4/5
The picture quality is not the greatest I have ever seen on blu-ray but it definitely is up there. In close-up shots you can see the pores on the skin.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is strong and good, not excellent.
There are a few Featurettes, but rather few extras, certainly not worth multiple viewings.
The Blu-Ray jumps straight to the menu when you pop it in - no pesky trailers and other bs. That earns it some plus points right there!
on 6 November 2016
Blu Ray quality is sparkling and sharp, the drama is just okay, a bit clunky/forced and far fetched but not too demanding on the senses, one brutal knife fight in a Turkish bath is possibly the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian plot, its a great cast but the quality of the script does not reflect the quality of the actors involved, I think it could have been a lot better as its an interesting premise, so its so so.
on 3 January 2008
I went to watch Promises at the London Film Festival in October - it opened the festival. As many have said before, Mortensen is at his best - I don't think I'm stretching out my neck too far by saying his best so far.
I found it a gripping story - beginning to end, though the pre-ending (kiss scene) was IMHO absolutely unnecessary and there are some scenes in there that were too long.
A lot was said about the steamroom fight - yes it was frightening and gripping and certainly proving a point - but my question is, why are so many (journalists, fans) focussing on that scene? - it's not Mortensen's first (full frontal nudity - The Indian Runner) and apart from that, I personally found the brothel scene (Semyon's favourite stable) more intriguing and revealing much more about Nikolai... but maybe that's just me.
All in, certainly a movie I'm going to watch again to catch more of the subtleties in it. Apart from Watts, whom I didn't find very convincing (but maybe it was the role itself)- the cast is great and next to Mortensen, Mueller-Stahl and Cassel did a fab job portraying the characters.
Is it possible to take seriously a movie where the violent highlight is a vicious fight in a public bath? The fight requires, of course, that at least one of the male fighters be nude. In this case, it's the lead actor and there are no flopping bits that we don't see. Another requirement would be that knives must be involved so that we can get plenty of blood, along with wince-inducing moments when blades slice into back and stomach muscles. And for a coup de grace, what could be more ick worthy than a blade driven into an eyeball, with the crunch of the socket bone being shattered?
The bathhouse fight in Eastern Promises may be exploitive, but it's one of the most exciting, stunningly choreographed brawls I've seen on a screen. More to the point, it tells us something about the kind of man Nikolai is. He's the man who survives, and he's a lot tougher, smarter, more resourceful and more violent than we may have thought...and that's saying something, since we've already watched him "process" a corpse for anonymous disposal. It involved removing the teeth and fingers using pliers and a snipper.
Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, the driver, as he calls himself, for the head of a powerful and vicious gang of Russian mafia based in London. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the old man who owns the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, rules his criminal empire with guile and force. He is an aging man with white hair clipped short. He can be a friendly sort at times. He makes a wonderful pot of borscht. He plays the violin. He has daughters. He encourages his angels, his granddaughters, to learn the violin. "You must practice more," he tells them. "You must make the wood cry." Semyon spends much of his time running drugs and prostitution. He brings in underage girls from Eastern Europe who think they'll be maids and waitresses, then imprisons them, hooks them on heroin, brutalizes and breaks them with rape and beatings, and puts them to work. One 14-year-old girl escapes. She can barely speak English. She's pregnant and hemorrhaging. When she dies in a hospital her baby is saved and her diary is found. Eastern Promises is going to tell us about Anna (Naomi Watts), the nurse who helped deliver the baby and found the diary; about Semyon and the lengths he will go to protect himself, his power and his son; and about the driver, Nikolai, the man Semyon trusts as much as he would trust anyone. We're going to learn more than we want about Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's son. Kirill is a weakling who likes to beat people, a drunk, a man who breaks in the frightened girls by raping them on his father's orders and beats them when he can't perform. At one moment he embraces Nikolai as a brother, another he forces Nikolai into humiliating acts. Kirill grovels for his father's approval and beats others when he doesn't get it.
Eastern Promises is a fine movie, violent, complex and ugly. We're deep in London's Russian mafia, where violent thugs have tattoos that tell each other the story of their crimes, their murders and their imprisonments. Family is the only thing that counts, and even that becomes a repugnant concept. Moving through this is Nikolai, slab-faced, pale, calm to the point of being unnerving. When he seems drawn to Anna, we're never quite sure whether this will mean a degree of tenderness, or her death, or the death of the baby who has become a lever some would use against Semyon. "I'm just the driver," Nikolai says.
Through it all I was engrossed, partly with the world of these tattooed, dangerous men, partly with the subtle way David Cronenberg fiddled with my reactions and assumptions, and partly with just how good the actors were. Mortensen gave a stunning performance, down to his Russian-accented English, to his physicality and to the way he kept us off-balance with his intentions. Just as good was Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon. He has given us any number of wise old men to admire. Here he gives us a monster, opening layer upon layer of cruelty and betrayal. Mueller-Stahl just asking Anna with avuncular concern where she lives is able to raise the dread level with no effort at all.
There is a twist that cannot be described, and which I wish hadn't happened. Even with that, Eastern Promises is a movie worth seeing and owning.
The look of the film is just as tough and dark as the story. And if you're of a certain age, you'll remind yourself to buy Cronenberg's Scanners (for your kids, of course) when you pick up Eastern Promises.
'Eastern Promises' is a film about a midwife who inadvertently become embroiled in the world of the Russian mafia in London. It has plenty of intrigue and a few plot twists and then sadly fizzles out at the end, leaving you feeling rather dissatisfied (hence the 3 stars). It could have delivered so much more and had plenty of scope for an additional twenty minutes or so to tie up loose ends and leave the viewer with a complete ending. In it's favour it has some pretty good performances from Vigo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, but it pays to be aware that there are some quite violent scenes in this film. If you're looking for a short film with enough of a storyline to keep you engaged and don't mind an ambiguous ending then this is the place to go, personally I was left feeling rather deflated and without a feeling of resolution.
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on 25 July 2012
Not much of a Cronenburg afficionado, me, but I do have a sort of idea what he's best known for: horror. What, then, is he doing in London directing a film about the Russian mafia? Bit of a disconnect there, but by golly this is a good one!
Anna, a nurse at a London hospital, admits a young pregnant girl who subsequently dies in childbirth. The only clue to her identity is her her diary, written in Russian. Anna's investigations take her to the heart of the Vory V Zakone's sex trafficking operation in the city.
The plot holds few surprises, being a fairly linear and conventional story with only a minor (and rather predictable) twist to add a degree of piquancy to the proceedings. In fact, plot is too strong a word altogether - this is a "in trouble with The Mob" story, plain and simple. No big deal - the story is secondary to pretty much everything else which is, however, most excellent. Let's start with the acting. Mortensen is just fantastic as Nikolai, a poker faced, sardonic mob footsoldier. His "Roozhian aksyent" may be a tad out but it worked for me. He is, every tatooed inch of him (and let me say, ladies, you do get to see //every// inch of him) the Vory V "man who does". Vince Cassell is a live wire as his unstable drunkard of a captain and Armin Mueller Stahl just about pips Mortensen for the Crookedmouth Acting Award as the kindly, patrician Godfather with a core of steel. Naomi Watts, however, is a bit lost in the middle of this acting triad. One has to feel a little sorry for her: she does a good enough job, but it's just not up to the task in the face of her screen-mates' performances.
The film isn't actually that big on action. No big shoot-outs, heists or busts, no car chases and no horses heads in the enemys' beds. Well... there are a couple of decent throat cuttings and a nicely staged (and also rather bloody) knife fight in a sauna: classic Cronenburg gore, so look away if you're squeamish. The film isn't really about the action, though: my opinion is that Eastern Promises is majoring on the subject matter alone: the Russian Mob. You don't watch Godfather or Goodfellas for the story, you watch them for a safe and secure peek into a world that you hope you'll never visit in real life, where men of honour embrace each other in one scene and sell each other down the river in the next. Eastern Promises is like that, big on atmosphere and character, subtle (and not so subtle) menace and twisted morals. Cronenburg plays a trump card however, by steering away from the cliche'd "Chicago operation" and looking east.
All in all, this is a fascinating, well acted and nicely directed gangster flick. Enjoyable and definitely a keeper.
"Okay. Now I'm going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers. You might want to leave room."