Friday, November 2, 2007

David Cronenberg - Eastern Promises (2007)

While David Cronenberg's works tend, in my opinion, to be flawed gems, I always approach a new Cronenberg feature with excitement and expectation. This was particularly so with EP because the preceding film, A History Of Violence, is one of my favourite Cronenberg films, and, like EP, stars Viggo Mortensen; it also features Naomi Watts, who's a favourite of mine. However, I found EP quite disappointing.

The film, set in London, follows the story of Anna (Watts), a woman of Russian ancestry, who works in a maternity ward. When a Russian girl of fourteen is brought in miscarrying, and dies in giving birth, Anna determines to use her diary to find the baby's family (Anna herself, we are told, has recently suffered a miscarriage). Her search takes her to a Russian restaurant, where she soon finds herself ever more deeply and dangerously entangled with the Russian criminal underworld, the vory y zakone, specifically Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his flaky and unstable son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), to whom we are introduced as Semyon's chauffeur.

Though I like Cassell (his rather two-dimensional character here gives him little to work with), and Mueller-Stahl is excellent as Semyon, the Russian accents, to my ears, sound more like caricatures. Mortensen is also good as the enigmatic Nikolai; however, one of my favourite aspects of his character in AHOV was the way in which his rugged all-american-ness played into the deceptive layers of the film, and there is no shadow of this to be found in EP. The film is beautifully made, and, as all the critics have noted, there is a breathtaking fight scene in which a naked, heavily tattooed Mortensen is pitted against two thugs - this scene conveys both the vulnerability, the grace and the human-ness of the male body in a way which is incredibly rare in film.

However, the negative aspects of the film heavily overshadow its strengths. The plot is essentially preposterous, and the narrative veers sketchily into the didactic (explanations of Russian prison tattoos, for example, which is a fascinating subject in itself - I recommend the work Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia II, introduced by Anne Applebaum, author of the also-excellent Gulag: A History), and into emotional appeals to cliche, while the characters' motivations are so blindingly obvious as to make the work heavy-handed in the extreme. Anna's naivete, in particular, is difficult to believe, and seems to exist merely to set up a moral contrast between the (good, blond, Westernised) heroine and the dark masculine world of the Russians. I was also troubled by the morality of the work, the Orientalist use of Russia (and the European East) as a place and a symbol of dark barbarism (despite Anna's Russian background), and the way in which we are led to sympathise with the character of Nikolai. Finally, the ending is not only highly unbelievable, but is nothing short of embarrassing - some critics have suggested that this is a purposeful slap in the viewer's face and to the expectations aroused, but if so, it's a failure, at least in this viewer's opinion.

I wouldn't say it isn't a film worth seeing, particularly for Cronenberg fans - the stunning visuals and exploration of human viscerality and malleable identity, themes which run through all his works, are evident in spades - but in toto I expected more from a director with Cronenberg's record of complex, transgressive and thought-provoking works.

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