Judge Gordon Sullivan says this is like The Fly reworked against a backdrop of the London underworld, except for the fact that it isn't.
Every sin leaves a mark.
I pity the folks who have to market Cronenberg films. He hadn't really been a box-office draw since The Fly in the '80s, so when A History of Violence did very well, it must have come as a bit of a shock since the film makes no concessions to the multiplex audience. Coming off of that accidental hit, Cronenberg gave us Eastern Promises, a film, which while every bit as good as A History of Violence, did not fire up the box office as much. Part of the reason for that is that Eastern Promises is a difficult film to market. It's a Cronenberg film, but it's not enough like his most immediate success to get people into the theaters because of that. It's also a gangster film, but it's not like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or even The Departed. In fact, the focus on the Russian mob in London might turn off some who like their gangsters in America. In addition, the cast is uniformly excellent, but none of them have the kind of marquee value that's going to get throngs of people in on opening night. For all these reasons, people can be forgiven for giving this film a pass in the theaters, but now that it's out on HD DVD it's time to give Eastern Promises a shot.
Facts of the Case
A mother in dire straits dies while giving birth in a London hospital, leaving behind a daughter and a diary in Russian as her only legacy. The midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts, King Kong), who delivers the baby attempts to decipher the diary with the help of her Russian uncle. It leads her to a local restaurant, and into the lives of the Russian mob, including "driver" Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence). As Anna digs deeper into the mother's past, she uncovers power struggles, human trafficking, and information that could upset the balance of the underworld.
Cronenberg has spent his career, at least since Videodrome, interrogating the difference between perception and reality and how that difference can affect the lives of his characters. The opening salvo in this assault on our senses was an over the top sci-fi masterpiece: Videodrome featured a vaginal orifice in a man's stomach, a bone/flesh gun, and bizarre rants about "the new flesh." He continued mining this theme through films as diverse as Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly, and eXistenZ without really gaining much mainstream attention. What attention he did gain was for the extreme elements of his work, gore in The Fly and sex in Crash. However, all that changed with A History of Violence. Here was a film divorced from more bizarre concerns like drugs (Naked Lunch), car-sex (Crash), or mental illness (Spider), and it included name actors who didn't appear to be slumming for street-cred. Instead we got the story of an (apparently) average guy who has a secret, and the film was a meditation on the difference between our perception of others and the reality behind them.
Eastern Promises continues in that vein. Instead of gynecologists, diplomats, or the mentally ill, an average Londoner is thrust into a movie world of gangsters and deadly secrets. This is a fairly common cinematic trope: the fish out of water in the underworld. However, Cronenberg isn't interested in remaking Goodfellas. His interest seems to lie in the actions that occur between criminal exploits. Because Cronenberg doesn't give us many details about the operations of the Russian mob, it feels more authentic and unembellished. Yes, other films present us with historically accurate gangsters (The Departed comes to mind), but those films often show so much of the inner workings of the organization that we become involved in the underworld and root for its denizens. For instance, the exchange of dollars for guidance chips in The Departed is a bravura piece of cinema, but it involves us so much that we don't tend to question the motivations of either side. Eastern Promises doesn't involve us in the pulse-quickening exploits of Nikolai and his cohorts, which gives use the distance to question the gangsters and their motivations.
Die-hard fans of gangster cinema might be disappointed by Eastern Promises for that very reason. In fact, the film is a kind of anti-gangster movie. Although it deals with members of the underworld, there is none of the usual attention to the fetishistic details of criminal conduct, there is no narration, as in Goodfellas, that will lead us through this London sub-culture. Instead, Eastern Promises supplies us with human drama, showing that gangsters are people first and criminals second. However, that's not to say there isn't some underworld-style violence. The scene in the bathhouse is justifiably talked about as one of the most beautiful pieces of violence in mainstream cinema. But moments like that one stand out all the sharper because they are surrounded by scenes of subtle gangster-ism rather than a continual parade of illegal activity.
With the bathhouse scene in mind, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the superb performances by everyone in front of the camera. Mortensen's Nikolai is one of the most genuinely lifelike characters I've seen on a screen. Part of the success rests with the fact that the Russian aspects of his character are note-perfect, from his tattoos to his accent and walk. But beyond the surface details of his performance, he consistently projects a history for his character; he always acts as if he has a past, and even if we are not privy to it, the effects of that past are always lurking. Naomi Watts is excellent in the usually thankless role of audience surrogate. She nimbly performs innocence in the face of the Russian underworld without ever seeming stupid or overly naive. The criminally underrated Vincent Cassel turns in another manic performance. His combination of arrogance, privilege, and insecurity is fascinating to watch. When I spoke of subtlety and the interrogation of gangsters earlier, the character I had most in mind was Armin Mueller-Stahl's Semyon. He starts out very genial, but his ruthless streak is eventually revealed. However, unlike other movie gangsters, he is perfectly capable of appearing un-intimidating. His scene with Naomi Watts in the hospital is chilling not because he threatens the baby, but precisely because he doesn't.
On the technical front, this HD DVD fares well. The widescreen picture is free of blemish, as befits a new release, while being high in detail. However, I was so engrossed in the story and Cronenberg's visuals that it took me a half the film to realize the level of visual detail. Cronenberg's typically cool colors and style are rendered well, especially the dark streets of London. The audio is likewise of high quality, rendering dialogue and music effectively. The DVD side of this combo disc also looks and sounds excellent, but can't hold a candle to the HD presentation.
As for the extras, I'll put it simply: Cronenberg deserves better. Of course the film didn't light up the box office, but less than 20 minutes of EPK-style documentaries does not make an effective movie presentation. Sadly, that's what we get. "Secrets and Stores" is about 10 minutes of talking-head promotional material, while "Marked for Life" continues in the same vein for six minutes but focuses on the tattoos in the film. Web-enabled content on the HD DVD includes the option to download two more pieces, one which focuses on the bathhouse scene for a few minutes, and another which gives a minute to Naomi Watts so she can talk about riding a motorcycle for the first time. The latter short is especially insulting considering that Cronenberg is a rabid fan of motorcycles and probably could say much about the particular bike featured in the film. Cronenberg has twice shown that his films are worthy of two-disc Criterion editions, so the perfunctory nature of the extras included, and especially the lack of commentary, are nigh unpardonable. The included features are instead a tease, as both Cronenberg and Mortensen seem especially perceptive about the film and their roles in its creation. I sincerely hope that this film either gets the two-disc treatment in the near future (after it wins a few awards, perhaps), or that Universal steps up to improve the quality of the material available for download.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've spent much of this review putting Eastern Promises in the context of Cronenberg's films, as well as recent gangster film, but it's also easy to forget all that and just enjoy the plot as we watch the fate of the baby and her protector(s). Cronenberg may be making many subtle and complex points, but he's also crafted a well-paced film filled with suspense.
There's been talk of someone producing a sequel and prequel to The Departed to show backstory and what might have happened to some of the characters after the events of the film. Although I wouldn't mind watching those films if they ever get produced, I feel like I already know everything I need to know about those characters. In contrast, Eastern Promises almost begs for a prequel/sequel combo, if only to answer the basic questions of how Nikolai became a driver and how far his rise will go. Thankfully it is unlikely that these films will get made, because while Eastern Promises leaves many questions unanswered, it makes us stop and appreciate that they can be asked.
Cronenberg and his actors are acquitted for creating a fascinating glimpse into London's underworld. Universal is held without bail until it gives the film the treatment it deserves on disc.
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