Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eastern Promises

The mysterious and charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose courtly charm as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant impeccably masks a cold and brutal core, the family’s fortunes are tested by Semyon’s volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father. But Nikolai’s carefully maintained existence is jarred once he crosses paths at Christmastime with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of a young teenager who dies while giving birth to a baby. Anna resolves to try to trace the baby’s lineage and relatives. The girl’s personal diary also survives her; it is written in Russian, and Anna seeks answers in it. Anna’s mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) does not discourage her, but Anna’s irascible Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) urges caution. He is right to do so; by delving into the diary, Anna has accidentally unleashed the full fury of the Vory. With Semyon and Kirill closing ranks and Anna pressing her inquiries, Nikolai unexpectedly finds his loyalties divided. The family tightens its grip on him; who can, or should, he trust? Several lives, including his own, hang in the balance as a harrowing chain of murder, deceit, and retribution reverberates through the darkest corners of both the family and London itself.

Excellent film. I've always enjoy David Cronenberg's movies because, as a film maker, he always sticks to his particular style while never giving way to the more accepted 'Hollywood' approach. In Cornenberg's movies, he tells you what you need to know and if you miss it, tough, they'll be no refresher before the exam. This movie is no exception. The story is actually rather straight forward once all of the associated Russian vernacular is in place, so it doesn't take a tremendous amount of concentration to follow along. It's the way Cronenberg tells the story and how well it's acted that turn a simple mafia-style story into a tense and focused film with a few 'whoa, I didn't see that coming' moments. Cronenberg is at the top of his game for this movie and I'm hoping he receives some acknowledgment for it. And speaking of the top of his game..........

Viggo Mortensen is absolutely amazing. His performance is worth seeing, alone, which is all the more astonishing when, after the movie, you realize how few lines he actually had with half of them being in Russian. His performance is one of nuanced emotion conveyed through body language and expression - you know what he's saying even when it's in Russian, you can tell when he's thinking something different from what he's saying or what he's thinking when he's completely silent. From what I have read, Mortensen spent several weeks alone in Russia so he could listen to people talk and study their body language in an effort to enhance his portrayal of his character, much like how he wore his sword during the off times when filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the final result of the immersion is a totally believable character.

The rest of the cast does not disappoint. On the contrary, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl are standouts in their own right. Watts, as usual, easily conveys the emotions behind her character's drive while Mueller-Stahl convincingly comes across as the warm fatherly type who would feed you a nice meal, have you murdered in your sleep and buried in the flower bed and then show woeful remorse over the fact that no one has seen you in weeks. Cassel is simply scary on a completely psychotic level.

Combined, all of the actors and their characters, along with Cronenberg, have forged an engaging film that, in my opinion, is deeply satisfying after one viewing and will probably become even more nuanced on the third or fourth. I look forward to seeing it again upon it's release on DVD.


Chris said...

Hiya from York England. Went to the movies last night and watched Atonment (great flick by the way) and saw the trailer for Eastern Promises. Love Vigo, looks good.

John Taylor said...

hi chris - If you like Viggo, you'll enjoy this movie - he really takes his craft up a level for this movie.
Hope everything is going well!