Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Film Review--Eastern Promises (2007)

A lot about Eastern Promises, the new film from David Cronenberg, could have made it little more than standard mob fare. The Russian mob in the London streets, a woman in trouble and an abandoned baby have all been used plenty in second-rate thrillers, but his new film is anything but standard. Naomi Watts plays a London midwife who delivers the baby of a fourteen year old Russian junkie, who died during childbirth. She finds the girl’s diary in her purse, and in order to both try finding a home for the child and to satisfy her voyeurism, has her Russian uncle translate it. “Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?” he asks her, mortified and unwilling to meddle in the affairs of dead junkies. “Let her secrets be buried with her body.” But she finds a business card for a Russian restaurant where she finds the kindly Russian owner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who claims to have never heard of the girl but becomes less kindly and strangely interested when she mentions the diary. He is more than happy to translate, but she must bring it to him so he can study it.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the restaurateur is connected to the Russian underground and the dead girl had a close connection to him. The story isn't trying to trick anyone about this and, once the facts come clear, the mission becomes to keep the baby safe. Using this loose thriller plotting, Cronenberg creates a slice of life picture about the Russian mob. There are a few twists and turns along the way but, unlike much of his early work, this movie doesn’t throw in a lot of red herrings. Instead it offers a tightly-woven tale of buried secrets and power struggles in an unseen world that is more about tone and mood than crazy plotting. It is just this simplicity of plot that allows screenwriter Steve Knight to develop believable characters rich in depth and realistic in motivation. Knight also penned Stephen Frears’ excellent 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, a film very similar in scope and tone, also about the underground world of immigrants in London.

Tight and well-written as it might be, the story is not what carries this film. Eastern Promises is a slow burn. The first five minutes are shocking in their violence (there were a few walkouts in the theater) but, once the story begins, the characters are given time to breathe and the mood is allowed to envelope the scenario. Much like A History of Violence, the violence is short and extremely intense, but the movement of the normal action is so slow that it seems that much more extreme. But none of this would be possible if not for the cast. The four principle actors are all perfect in their roles. Viggo Mortensen is getting the most mainstream attention for his performance of Nikolai, the chauffeur and “undertaker” for this mob family. While he isn’t even mentioned in the synopsis above, he is definitely the star of the movie. The film revolves around this character and Mortensen owns every scene he’s in. He is truly scary and tough (the considerable physical condition he’s in for this role doesn’t hurt) but, through the force of the performance, gives this villainous character more humanity than is usually warranted. He may be the crux, but Vincent Cassel and Mueller-Stahl add so much to this trio of Russians. While Cassel comes off as a caricature sometimes, his macho swagger and English slang cover a bank of secrets that really help to make his slimy stereotype make a lot of sense. The best performance, though, comes from Mueller-Stahl who, as a veteran of German stage and screen, gives a performance that adds depth with each successive scene. At times he is absolutely monstrous but, at the same time, he throws gala birthday parties for centenarians, discussing murder while arranging rose petals on a dish. It is simply amazing just how believably Russian these three actors, one American, one French and one German, seem; had I not seen any of them before, I could easily buy all three as native. On top of them is Naomi Watts, whose actions cause the string of events to occur. While she is playing the woman in trouble that she’s become known for, she does this very well and, as in Mulholland Drive, when she is given a quality script with quality people around her, she does an excellent job. Without this, she is often little more than a doe-eyed scream queen, but she has a lot more and really shows it here. That this fully realized mob story can be told adequately with, essentially, just these four characters, is fantastic and is a real testament to the overall quality of the production.

Because Cronenberg uses many of the same production people over and over, there is an overall consistency of style from film to film. But, more than that, using cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore in all his productions ensures a high level of quality and artistic trust. The photography is gorgeous here and displays the dark streets of London with rare beauty (in ways unseen since Cronenberg’s previous London-based film, 2002’s Spider). He is also able to seamlessly switch gears into showing the seedy opulence of the mob restaurant with equal skill, juxtaposing the worlds with restraint and a refreshing lack of tricks. No long tracking shots or special effect sequences here; just clean, efficient, well-framed shots that, with Shore’s music, makes the mood of Eastern Promises near perfect. Often the case, Shore’s scoring is subtle and unobtrusive, but uses strong Eastern European melodies and instrumentation to evoke the melancholy that permeates the film, adding overtones without directly commenting on the action onscreen.

While there are plenty of aspects of David Cronenberg’s films that have changed dramatically from his early work, it is surprising just how much of his style has stayed through the years and imprint his recent work with a signature that could only come from Cronenberg. In general, he keeps his stories and locations small. The only real exceptions to this are Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, which each take place over two very different world and are more broad-sweeping stories of intrigue (even if it’s all in the characters’ heads). Within these narrow structures he builds characters that don’t have to stretch too far and, as such, is able to dig more deeply into the emotion and humanity of these people. This humanity, and it’s parallel of dehumanization, is a key theme that connects these films and makes them consistently good. Early, he dealt with this dehumanization through technology and drugs, as in the case of his 1986 remake of The Fly. In the case of Eastern Promises, it comes from poverty and societal pressures. Cronenberg’s society is often darker than his machine and, in the case of this film, the greatest threat to this mob’s ivory tower is the person willing to fight and sacrifice for the sake of an orphan baby’s humanity.