DVD : Eastern Promises (2007, David Cronenberg)

Eastern Promises
Image by Lord_Henry via Flickr

Warning: contains plot spoilers !

Also showing on satellite in Europe, I checked out the DVD presentation of David Cronenberg’s Russian gangster epic set in London. Starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, the story revolves around the death of a forcibly trafficked young prostitute who along with a baby, leaves a diary which incriminates the seemingly avuncular but ruthless crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). London is barely a character in this movie, which could be any major western city; in contrast to Mortensen’s debut role in The Young Americans (1993) where the city figures vividly.

The action opens with an extremely graphic killing of a rival of Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel is wonderful as Semyon’s wayward, wastrel son) which lays the groundwork for the film’s depiction of the business and rituals of the Vory V Zakone crime syndicate. Perhaps to-be-expected given the direction of Cronenberg, the film is overly gory with graphical blood-letting that exceeds the needs of the story in my view.

Watts is great as the nurse who stumbles into this dim world by delivering the baby from the dead girl and nabbing her diary in the process. She encounters Semyon and quickly realises he is not all that he seems, whilst attracting an unlikely protecting angel in the guise of Nikolai (Mortensen). Nikolai is rapidly insinuating himself into the crime family with dangerous and ruthless effect. It becomes clear why he is more of a goody than on first meeting. Some great set pieces which inform and revolt but the story rapidly dwindles away to a predictable conclusion. This predictability I can appreciate, but the short presentation could have made more of the fate of Semyon and his family as the syndicate power struggle propels the calculating Nikolai to the head of the outfit. I felt a bit short-changed by the rapid ending, warmed only slightly by the happy conclusion of the babe in would-be mum Watts’ arms (supported neatly by Sinead Cusack as her mother).

The nastiness of modern slavery and the cynical way these girls are recruited is touchingly portrayed by the dead girl’s narration. Mortensen is believable as the committed Russian gangster/climber with an agenda yet no apparent conflict as the undercover good-guy. I liked the mix of Russian and English dialogue with realistic accents and well presented background. A great cast including Pole Jerzy Skolimowski – more normally seen behind the camera but who I remember as a superb KGB baddie in White Nights (1985) – as Watts’ Russian uncle. An honourable mention should also go to the tattoos – characters in their own right ! The DVD package includes some interesting background with interviews from the Director, writer Steve Knight and the cast. Overall, worth a look but not a repeat viewing. Look for the satellite broadcast on Sky or rent the DVD.