Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg which runs from November 1st to January 19th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Eastern Promises starts off with a gruesome murder on command, and it only spirals downward from there. A young pregnant girl named Tatiana is admitted to the hospital, under the care of a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts). She dies giving birth, and Anna feels that it’s her responsibility to find the baby’s next of kin. Among Tatiana’s possessions are a diary that’s in Russian, and also finds a business card inside to a restaurant run by Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a nice but my serious man that shows great interest in the diary. At the same time his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) are fixing up a nearby mess, and their actions collide with some startling truths reveled from Tatiana’s diary. With the Russian mob becoming more interested in this, Nikolai is sent into Anna’s world, and neither are prepared for the consequences to the actions that the diary put into motion. Anything, and anyone, mentioned in it must be eliminated, at all costs.
You combine that sort of view with the original screenplay that’s brought to us by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), and Eastern Promises is not only born out of brilliance, but it just might be the best film Cronenberg has made yet.
In a career that spans nearly 40-50 years (depending on when you feel he first started his works), David Cronenberg has done wonders with that time. At this point, it might be a “head-scratcher” to wonder if, in that time, he has developed a sort of trademark. Admittely, I myself used to wonder that, having seen his works for as long as I’ve been alive. And yes, he’s done more since Eastern Promises (A Dangerous Mind and Cosmopolis), but it wasn’t till watching this that the realization dawned: judging by the quality of his movies, one can say that David Cronenberg is a matter-of-fact man. What does that mean? It means that whatever is happening in his films, no matter how brutal or extreme or bizarre they are, they’re all presented with assertiveness. His films give off this vibe of certainty; that what you and I are watching is completely normal…to him. It’s all-normal. We could see a giant roach have a conversation with Peter Weir, or we can see a man get his throat cut in the most inhumane way, and to Cronenberg, that’s the way of the world. Correction, “his world.” Image him next to you, standing either shoulder to shoulder or maybe slightly behind you. He’s watching you watch what he sees. And if you freak out, imagine him placing his hand on your shoulder. A touch of calmness. That’s what he brings, no matter what story he’s telling.
You combine that sort of view with the original screenplay that’s brought to us by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), and Eastern Promises is not only born out of brilliance, but it just might be the best film Cronenberg has made yet. The wonderful thing about Knight’s screenplay is that is plays everything close to the chest, keeping to itself. It’s the kind of writing that flies under the radar, and hits you in such a way that you feel the effects long after you’ve seen the product. It’s dark, witty, and extremely quotable. The best part about it is way it builds and builds, scene after scene. Knight’s screenplay creates a showcase of humanistic destruction; brick by brick, giving us the horror but also not letting cynicism take over when the moments count. Cronenberg’s direction towards Knight’s words and his actions create this wonderful pace, and with powerful pronunciation. The breakdown goes from simple scene set-ups to a series of small moments that count more than anything, and they’re each given a tremendous amount of love & care.
Cronenberg had that wonderful script, and he also had a slew of performances that dazzle. Watts is impressive (and also reliable seeing from her track record), but without the center stage is commanded by Mortensen and Cassel.
Cronenberg had that wonderful script, and he also had a slew of performances that dazzle. Watts is impressive (and also reliable seeing from her track record), but without the center stage is commanded by Mortensen and Cassel. Viggo Mortensen gives a performance of a lifetime. He did intense research for the role, and his dedication always shines, but you can definitely tell he got the sense of what Knight was trying to accomplish with the character. Like the way the script is, Mortensen plays his character to the chest, emerging in the trials and the boils of situations he finds himself in (most of which he does not favor) without letting anything get the best of him. He’s chilling and calculating, but he lets the character grow in such an instinctive sense that it’s beautiful to witness. His work was recognized, but Cassel’s was not, and that’s a shame. You want to talk about a performance that completely blends in? In this case, it blends into the madness, and like Mortensen, he lets his character develop into something more. Cassell’s Kirill is layered, and heartbreaking in the bleakest of sense. You may not notice how wonderful he is the first time around, but it’ll definitely hit you on multiple viewings.
Cronenberg also brought along some of his longtime collaborators to help shape the atmosphere. Composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s lights and score help fit in the pieces (Shore’s music definitely sets the tone right from the opening credits). You have those pieces, a rare breed of a screenplay, performances a top-tier director would kill for, and you give all of that to the mindset of a man that revels in the abnormal, and Eastern Promises forms to what might be the finest thing David Cronenberg has done in his long, long filmography. There might be some that argue that it’s not deemed worthy of that title. With titles like Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, A History of Violence and Videodrome, how could it? How could it possibly compete? When it’s all said and done, I feel the real question is: is this Cronenberg at his most conventional? Quite possibly, yes. But because of who he is, what he is capable of, and with the all the tools he had to work with, Eastern Promises rises above the quality that conventionalism has and stands stall as sheer bravado. Matter-of-factly.
[notification type=”star”]96/100 ~ MASTERFUL. Eastern Promises is quite possibly the best example of a director that’s made a living of giving us the weird and twisted and the gruesome. It’s also the answer to the question: what would those things be like combined with a magnificent story?[/notification]