David Cronenberg: Eastern Promises (2007)

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I remember Eastern Promises as a blunt physical force. The standout scene—the frightening naked knife fight in the Turkish baths—threw me back. The total effect of the harrowing story and grim subject matter not only took the wind out of me, but it also kept me down. I recall that first viewing in fall 2007 as a moving, even distressing filmgoing experience, so when Aren initiated our David Cronenberg Retrospective, I was intrigued to revisit Eastern Promises after all these years, to see if the film has retained its power.

It has.

Eastern Promises is a remarkable film: an affecting crime drama, an idiosyncratic mob thriller, and an important later work in Cronenberg’s eclectic yet thematically consistent ouvre.

First of all, the film’s narrative is tightly plotted and well-constructed. Information is carefully doled out and aspects of character are revealed slowly and often implicitly. Eastern Promises explores the bifurcated world of Russian immigrants in contemporary London, one hemisphere being that of the Russian mafia, or vory v zakone (“thieves in law”), and the other being that of ordinary civilians. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at Trafalgar Hospital, is drawn into the criminal underworld when a young Russian teenager dies under her care while giving birth to a baby girl. The youth appears to have been a drug-addict and prostitute, and Anna’s efforts to translate the youth’s diary (Anna has Russian heritage but does not possess the language) lead Anna to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a Russian fine dining establishment with connections to the Russian mafia operating in London. We soon meet Semyon’s no-good son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), an imposing henchman with a mysterious quality about him.

Aren has already praised Cronenberg as an extremely effective narrative storyteller, who “never gets enough credit for the clarity of his storytelling.” This is certainly true for Eastern Promises, which clocks in around one and three-quarter hours. However, part of the credit for the film’s effective narrative has to go to the screenwriter, Steven Knight, who is a well-known British writer of many crime and historical films and television shows (e.g., Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, Peaky Blinders). In fact, the only discernible flaw in the plot of Eastern Promises is the repeated coincidence of Anna and Nikolai happening to cross paths at the hospital at opportune moments, but it’s the sort of contrivance that stands out mostly because the rest of the plot is so well-crafted.

While Cronenberg certainly benefits from Knight’s script, Cronenberg’s own formal talents are on full display in Eastern Promises. By the early 2000s, Cronenberg was at the top of his abilities and was entering his prestige phase. In this period, Cronenberg seems to construct his films with formal skill, apparent ease, and understated confidence. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg demonstrates the proficiency of learned expertise. Here is a talented filmmaker at the summit of his formal craft and resources.

For example, the shot choices and communication of information to the audience in the very first scene, which depicts a mob hit, are impeccable. The film opens with a shot of a sign reading “Azim’s Barbers.” The camera pans right and cranes down to show a rainy city street crowded with stalls and a figure running through the rain towards the barbershop door. We notice another sign reading “Joy Indian Cuisine.” Setting and tone have been conveyed quickly and elegantly: immigrant London; something criminal is afoot. The camera stops with the figure, a teenaged boy, in front of the door. Now, consider the shot choices once the camera moves inside the barbershop. In the second shot, we see whom we presume is Azim and another man in the barber’s chair. The boy opens the door and comes inside, and we immediately wonder how this is going to play out. Something bad is going to happen, but to whom, and by whom? As the barber and customer chat in the foreground, the boy closes the window blinds in the background. Cronenberg then reverses the camera angle to the previous shot of the door from the outside, showing the boy turn the “open” sign to say “closed” and pulling down the door’s blind, and we immediately know he is the one to do something. Now, to whom?

Shot four reverses the angle but holds focus, in medium long framing, on the boy, and now we definitely know the boy is going to do something bad. Shot five shows Azim and the customer from the boy’s angle. The men continue to chatter until the customer interjects, “How much you taking off?” Shot six: the boy looks scared in a close up, and says, “Uncle . . . Azim.” In six shots equalling roughly 40 seconds, with minimal dialogue, we know what is going to happen in the scene. Azim has asked the boy to do something that scares him—to kill the customer—an act foreshadowed by the innocuous question that now sounds ominous: “How much you taking off?” A lot, in fact, mostly off the throat. It’s simple storytelling, but flawless.

On other occasions, Cronenberg uses cuts to thematically link scenes. For instance, fairly early on in the film, Naomi Watts runs away from an argument with her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) at the dinner table. Cronenberg smash cuts to a fancy feast at Semyon’s restaurant during a time of celebration. The cut signals some connection and resemblance between the two worlds (that of the regular Russian immigrants and that of the Russian mafia) but more importantly their contrast. This is a theme that Cronenberg develops throughout Eastern Promises.

In the film, Cronenberg certainly brings his unique sensibilities and preoccupations to the mobster genre. As the story develops, is becomes clear that Cronenberg and Knight are not interested in taking a common thematic approach in crime movies, namely blurring the lines between criminals and ordinary people, as a filmmaker such as Scorsese frequently does (Michael Mann similarly blurs distinctions between criminals and cops in his films). Instead, the mob world is increasingly framed as a strange, dark, even hellish underworld, an enclosed sphere or deep pit that sucks outside people in rather than extends throughout and underneath all of society. A film like Goodfellas operates by drawing the viewer in with the appeal and allure of the mob life, before reversing the protagonist’s fate to make us confront his evil choices and their consequences. Having drawn us in, Scorsese works to indict the viewer alongside his characters. In contrast, Eastern Promises does not represent greater society as being morally culpable; nevertheless, the underworld is a place that can draw anyone in, so there is dark potential lurking beneath people.

The main reason for this distinct approach to the crime genre seems to be Cronenberg’s privileging of his constant preoccupations over the usual themes of crime movies. Most notably, Cronenberg grafts body horror onto the violence of mob movies. In Eastern Promises, throat cutting, a conventional method of execution in mob movies, is conducted slowly, without undue ease, as the camera watches unflinchingly. Similarly, a knife in the eye in the climactic fight scene is similarly observed with an unhindered, patient view.

The instances of body horror in the film are connected to Cronenberg’s thematic preoccupation with metamorphosis. In the second scene of Eastern Promises, spilling blood on a pharmacy floor frames pregnancy as body horror in a call back to the horrifying birthing dream sequence in The Fly. In a following scene, the newborn baby on the hospital table is shown in close-up, the camera carefully taking in the tiny person’s desperate breathing as well as the bodily fluids spattered across the frail form. The newborn struggles to survive and move on to infancy, while the mother fades. One life’s ascension is contrasted with another’s declination to death.

Body horror and metamorphosis also affect Cronenberg’s portrayal of sex trafficking, which makes Eastern Promises much deeper—and moral—than most Hollywood depictions of prostitution, which tend to, whether consciously or unconsciously, present prostitution as sexy and therefore something fun and appealing. In Eastern Promises, the girls’ bodies tell their tragic stories. As Anna reads the diary and we hear the voice of a young girl in a Russian village tell about being hoodwinked and sold into the sex trade (the voice is that of Tatiana Maslany, of Orphan Black fame), we see bodies in states of physical degradation, as the forced injections and rape take their toll.

When Kirill takes Nikolai to his father’s “stable,” the setting is remarkably unglamorous and unsexy. The women look sad, Cronenberg’s steady framing adding no glamour or polish, no excitement through a flurry of fast cuts and body shots. When Nikolai is required to have sex with a girl while Kirill watches on, Nikolai takes her from behind, but it’s decidedly unattractive. He hunches over her arched body and grunts. There is none of the unrealistic, pornographied ease of “doggy-style” in most Hollywood movies. This is sex trafficking as body horror, a plague which leads to the physical degradation of the poor slave women and moral devolution of the criminal men.

The naked knife fight is the most exciting scene in the movie, but it uses nudity not for titillation (it’s certain to be unsatisfying for prurient eyes seeking out Viggo’s full view) but rather to expose the raw vulnerability of the human body. Nikolai is attacked in a Turkish bath by two Chechen thugs with knives, and he has to defend himself with nothing but his skin and bone. He receives scores of wounds on his tattooed body, even if he manages to inflict worse on his enemies. This botched hit job is one of the most gripping and memorable scenes of violence in a mob movie, but it has thematic weight in addition to suspense and excitement.

Cronenberg invites the viewer to compare Nikolai’s frenetic self-defence in the flesh to his earlier self-display (in only boxer shorts) as he is judged by the vors, to see whether he will become a made man and receive the star tattoos that signal the transformation in the Russian mafia—and which are used later on to mark him for execution in the bath. Cronenberg makes sure to show the tattoos being seared into Nikolai’s flesh. The mobsters, like the prostitutes, wear their stories on their bodies.

The film ends with views on repression and family. Cronenberg’s framing in the final scene makes clear that Kirill is motivated by love for Nikolai, and that Nikolai exploits that erotic tension to his benefit. It’s an interesting subplot in a mob movie, and makes a bit more explicit the homoerotics that colour other works in the genre. The interest in repression is also standard Cronenberg.

What are we to make of the strange family framing at the end, as Nikolai, who has been revealed to be a cop deep undercover, holds Anna, with the prostitute’s baby between them, before they must part ways? Is Cronenberg showing us the family that could have been, the family that a perhaps less-daring story and more conventional, less harsh vision would have made the happy ending? At the same time, it’s a gesture at the importance and health of the ordinary, fundamental human unit against an underworld of false or forced loyalties, human exploitation, and bonds of hate.  

Eastern Promises serves as an important later Cronenberg text, containing interesting variations on his main themes as well as generic innovations.

10 out of 10

Eastern Promises (2007, United Kingdom/Canada/United States)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Steven Knight; starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack.