Eastern Promises (2007)

2009 #32
David Cronenberg | 97 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Eastern PromisesArguably most famous for his horror films of the ’80s (though a couple of his ’90s efforts could stake a claim), director David Cronenberg widened his appeal somewhat with the excellent crime thriller A History of Violence. Here he reunites with star Viggo Mortensen for another grim tale, switching the bright searing heat of the American Midwest for the rain-drenched nighttime streets of our fair capital.

Despite some similarities in plot and theme, Eastern Promises failed to engage me in the same way as the earlier effort. Perhaps this is because it plays tag with its central character, beginning with Naomi Watts’ do-gooder nurse before shifting focus to Mortensen’s mafia chauffeur with nary a blink. It’s an unusual transition, and consequently it’s hard to tell whether it’s skillful writing or a fortuitous accident that it comes off seamlessly. One theoretical screenwriting argument would have it that the film is actually all about Christine, the baby, and that’s why it works, but that feels a little too pretentious to engage with now.

Tied around the baby’s fate, screenwriter Steven Knight factors in some appropriately dark elements, like white slavery or the relocated criminal underworld that currently operates in the UK. Though these are handled with a certain amount of care, they’ve been covered in greater depth elsewhere (the excellent miniseries Sex Traffic, for example) and here are reduced to pawns in a different tale. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but remembering the detail from other such dramas can leave the topics’ inclusion here feeling lightweight.

Elsewhere, the screenplay suffers from some awkward dialogue exchanges and barely credible logic contrivances being used to jump-start the plot. Most of these come from Watts’ character, who seems too competent for much of the film to pass off as a naïve fool at its start. This may be Watts’ fault, playing her as intelligent when a naïve approach might render her actions more believable, but it seems cruel to lay the blame with her as she’s very strong all round. Armin Mueller-Stahl also gives his typically accomplished turn in his typically key supporting role.

Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance is the focus, however. Apparently thoroughly immersed in the role, he gives a distinguished performance throughout and is central to what are by far the film’s most memorable moments: a nude steam baths fight, which has become justifiably infamous (I suspect for the “nude” part, but it’s the “fight” that deserves it), and a game-changing twist, that I sadly had ruined in advance, though there are plenty of clues scattered along the way.

By its end, Eastern Promises has the feel of the first part of something bigger: while the story of the baby is resolved, many others are left open. Unresolved threads aren’t always a problem, but it feels like Cronenberg has more to say in this world. So it’s nice to know a sequel is possibly in the works, because Eastern Promises has the potential to be a Hobbit to some Russian mafia epic’s Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, a similarly low-key follow-up would be just as appropriate.

Though it failed to capture me as much as A History of Violence, possibly due to too-raised expectations, Eastern Promises has the potential to grow with repeated viewings. And either type of continuation would be most welcome.

4 out of 5

Unfortunately, plans for a sequel ultimately fell apart in 2012. Some more details can be read here.

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