Hidden Gems: Eastern Promises
By Kyle Lee
January 19, 2017
David Cronenberg is one of the most peculiar directors in the history of movies. His most well-known works have included an adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone in 1983, a successful remake of The Fly in 1986, and 1996's hugely controversial Crash, which consisted of characters who are sexually aroused by car accidents. It was therefore a little puzzling when it was announced that he would adapt a graphic novel called A History of Violence into his next movie and cast newly minted superstar Viggo Mortensen (hot off of playing Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies) in the lead. What Cronenberg gave us was one of the best movies of 2005. Many wondered if he would go back to his usual bizarre sci-fi/horror genre or try something different. Well, he chose a good old fashioned gangster movie as a follow-up, and re-teamed with his leading man in 2007's Eastern Promises. Cronenberg didn’t become a mainstream director-for-hire with this picture, actually nothing of the sort. In fact, if you take a close look, he doesn't even really give us a standard gangster movie (there's not a single gun in it), he gives us something much deeper and more interesting. I think it’s his best work.
As the movie opens, we meet Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital. A young teenager dies after giving birth in Anna's ward, and while searching for any sort of identification Anna stumbles upon the girl's Russian language diary. In an attempt to find the rightful home for the newborn, she takes the diary to a local Russian restaurant where the owner, a seemingly kind old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), offers to translate it for her. While at the restaurant, Anna crosses paths with Seymon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his best friend and driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Anna's Russian-born uncle warns her that these people are part of vory v zakone, the Russian mafia.
But when Anna's motorcycle breaks down one night outside the restaurant, Nikolai gives her a ride home. There is a strange attraction between the two, but he warns that she should stay away from people like him. Nikolai insists he is just the driver but we have, not long before this, seen him casually dismember the body of a mobster that Kirril had put out a hit on. Anna gets slowly sucked into this world and fights to protect the current and future safety of the baby. Nikolai, meanwhile, must handle his unstable captain Kirril, and make progress in the eyes of the cold hearted boss Seymon. Kirril and Nikolai also have to deal with the fact that when you put out a hit on another member of the mafia, his family will probably come looking for you.
Cronenberg shows complete mastery of his art with this movie. Slowly, subtly, patiently, he reveals the layers of the story in such a way that you may need to see it multiple times so that you can fully understand the goings on. A lot of credit should go to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (working with Cronenberg for the eighth time), as the movie looks beautiful and feels like a "lived in" version of London, and not like a set or just a generic city. There are no shots of Big Ben, and they don’t have Westminster Abbey hit us in the face to let us know that we're in London, because that's not the world that these people live in. The movie has a very steady, measured pace that has led some to call it "boring," I found it fascinating. Cronenberg isn't looking to thrill us in the traditional sense with his story. He's looking to set up his characters and set up this world, and then let the story happen there. The happenings of the plot are secondary to the existence of these people and their lives.