Bright Lights Film Journal

“Eastern” Lives Up to its “Promises” – Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl Knock it out of the Park

I had just about given up on gangster films as a genre. To me, a gangster film is only as interesting as the subculture(s) it reflects, and what can one say about the Italian mafia subculture that hasn’t already been said 100 times over, thanks to Coppola, Scorsese, David Chase, et al.? Likewise, in recent years Hollywood has drawn far too often from the Irish mafia well (Road to Perdition, The Departed, Showtime’s Brotherhood) for this viewer’s taste. But the Russian mafia operating underground in London? That’s a different story.

You don’t need me to tell you that Eastern Promises is a good film. The reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic, and the film just won top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. Regardless, a few comments are in order:

Acting

This is the best ensemble cast I’ve seen since Zodiac. Director David Cronenberg clearly had a field day casting this film with interesting Slavic – or pseudo-Slavic – faces. Naomi Watts, playing a London midwife with a deceased Russian father, is as good as you’d expect her to be. However, like most crime dramas (cf. Zodiac), Eastern Promises belongs to its male performers. Viggo Mortensen as the morally ambiguous lead, a Russian driver, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Russian crime boss surpass themselves. Where Jack Nicholson as an Irish godfather in The Departed began well but eventually drifted over the top, and Paul Newman’s godfather in Road to Perdition was too underplayed to realize the part’s full potential, Mueller-Stahl as Eastern Promises’ combination restauranteur/Russian godfather achieves a perfect balance between Old World charm and latent menace. It’s a highly specific, highly detailed performance worthy of every award in the book.

Mise-en-Scène

Cronenberg’s direction – his camera placement and movement, cutting, and use of decor – is utterly assured. One senses one is in good hands from the start. Typically for Cronenberg, Eastern Promises’ style manages to be simultaneously visceral and detached.

London

Something about London seems to bring out the best in non-British directors. In the 1960s, American expatriates Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack) and Joseph Losey (The Servant) flourished in London settings. During the same period, London provided inspiration to Continental directors like Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup), Roman Polanski (Repulsion), and Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End). A substantial portion of Skolimowski’s Deep End takes place in an English bathhouse (so, for that matter, does Losey’s Steaming), which is worth mentioning because Eastern Promises’ big set piece, a knife fight, takes place in a bathhouse – and earlier in the film, Skolimowski appears as Naomi Watts’ uncle!

More recently, London seems to have freshly inspired Woody Allen (Match Point, Scoop), and, of course, there’s the Canadian Cronenberg (Spider) whose Eastern Promises is a welcome return to the city.

Score

The end credits confirmed what I’d guessed in the first five minutes, that Eastern Promises’ effectively moody score was by Cronenberg’s long-time collaborator, Howard Shore.

Remember when Audrey Hepburn had that run of pictures in the early ’60s – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, Two for the Road, Wait Until Dark – and even though the films had different directors, they were all scored by Henry Mancini? In a similar vein, 5 out of 6 of Viggo Mortensen’s most recent films – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises – have been scored by the versatile Shore. Draw your own conclusions.

ADDENDUM 9/22: (Via David W. Hudson) Cronenberg makes a list of some things he read and watched in preparation for the making of Eastern Promises.