David Cronenbergs compelling thriller about the Russian mafia in London (which opened the London Film Festival last week) seethes with brooding intensity. His previous movie A History of Violence, in which small-town America explodes into violence, was one of the best films of 2005. The equally well-made Eastern Promises matches it blow for blow.
It boasts a suspenseful screenplay by Steve Knight, who also wrote Stephen Frears Dirty Pretty Things, a shocking expos of the exploitation of Londons migrant workers. Whereas that film revolved around the illegal body-organ trade (albeit lapsing into melodrama towards the end), Eastern Promises focuses on the notorious Russian Vory V Zakone organized-crime family, involving people trafficking, prostitution, drugs and vicious fighting with their Chechen rivals. Once again the murky underbelly of life in the capital is unearthed in all its ugliness.
The door to this hidden London is opened when midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) tries to trace the family of a 14-year-old Russian girl who has died giving birth. A business card found in the girls belongings leads her to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, owned by the hospitable Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose charming manners mask the cold heart of a brutal gang leader. She also meets his hard-drinking, volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and wryly laconic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) a mysterious figure who seems to know more than he says.
Annas sympathetic mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) does not discourage her quest, but her crotchety Russian uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) urges caution and is vindicated when he translates the dead girls diary which reveals the horrible truth about how she was forced to become a sex slave by Semyons mob. Semyon, of course, is prepared to go any lengths to get his hands on this diary before it is given to the police, as Anna is sucked into the dark subterranean world of the Vory V Zakone.
Despite an unconvincing plot twist later on, Eastern Promises grips you in a vice from the start and does not let go it shows all the assurance and economy of a film-maker at the height of his powers. Cronenberg has come a long way since his low-budget body horror movies of the seventies and eighties, such as Videodrome and The Fly. He may be making more mainstream movies now but as an auteur each of his films is immediately identifiable, especially his obsession with the mortality of flesh and the way he dissects violence with the clinical precision of a post-mortem pathologist.
Although this film feels threatening throughout, there are actually only a few explicitly violent scenes – and one of these involves the chopping up of a corpse but boy, do they make an impact. In particular, there is an extraordinarily powerfully and extremely gruesome killing in a Turkish bath-house, when the naked Nikolai is attacked with knives by two black-leather-dressed hoodlums from a rival gang. The horrifying intimacy and strenuous physicality of murder by blade has perhaps never been so forcefully depicted.
Another stand-out feature of the film is the significance of tattoos, which illustrate the life-story of gang members: each tattoo representing a different phase of their lives, so that you can tell where someone has been and what they have done. When Nikolai is inducted into the inner circle of the Vory V Zakone after a gruelling interrogation in which he has to forsake his old family for his new one, he receives star tattoos on his knees signifying that he will never again have to kneel down to authority.
As befits a film which portrays a secret criminal world lurking in the shadows of everyday life, the London we see is unfamiliar and far from the tourist trail. The only instantly recognizable landmark is the Thames Barrier, near to where a body washes up (though there is also a savage revenge murder in the cemetery by Stamford Bridge, a cheeky reference to that most famous of post-Soviet entrepreneurs, Roman Abramovich). The muted colours and seedy locales of Peter Suschitzkys cinematography add much to the forbidding atmosphere, as does the moody music of long-time collaborator Howard Shore.
As for the cast, they deliver excellent performances, though this is very much Viggo Mortensens film. Just as he did so memorably in A History of Violence, in which he played a popular family man running a coffee shop who earlier had been a mob hitman, here he gives Nikolai an enigmatic, ambivalent relationship to good and evil, with his rock-like features masking a surprising sensitivity. In Mortensens charismatically minimalist portrait you cant take your eyes off him – this is a man with a past who has been on the dark side, but who always keeps you guessing.
Naomi Watts is the emotional heart of the film, at once both courageous and vulnerable, showing how her own recent miscarriage and Russian background gives her the personal motivation that leads her into danger. Armin Mueller-Stahl puts in a subtly understated performance as Semyon, a grandfatherly figure moved to tears by the tender sound of Russian violin music, but not by the anguished cries of his victims. Vincent Cassel also impresses as the mercurial Kirill, in thrall to his father but emotionally attached to Nikolai.
All in all, Eastern Promises delivers big time. Packing the punch of a triple vodka, the film provides 190 proof pure cinematic intoxication.