Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Grade: C

Not one to shy away from difficult subjects, David Cronenberg's latest offering, Eastern Promises, is the sinister and ambitious story of midwife Anna (Naomi Watts). When a teenage Russian girl dies during childbirth Anna takes the girl's diary for her Russian Uncle to translate. However, the information that she learns from this, and her quest for answers about the location of the baby's rightful family, propel her into the dangerous world of London's Russian mafia. In particular, the crime family headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), to whom Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is a 'driver'.

As an examination of the duality of man, Eastern Promises bears similarities to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), in that it focuses particularly on human aggression. This duality is best embodied in the film by the dark and dangerous Nikolai, captured through the terrific, menacing Mortensen. His unflinching placidity is both unsettling as defence, and lucid as potential threat -- the perfect poker face -- hinting at a clinical, fearsome edge. It is he that Anna clashes with on several occasions, but who has an underlying sensitivity to her plight, and the knowledge that she is completely out of her depth. Most interestingly, Nikolai is the element that holds everyone in the film together -- as father, mother, mentor and husband to the two true 'children' of the film, Anna (her initial theft of the diary, refusal to allow anyone in her family to read it, and rashness in showing it to Semyon) and the volatile Kirill (his pettiness, thirst for independence from his father, and struggle with sexuality).

The film differentiates him from the other criminals by giving him a sense of morality, demonstrated by his sparing of Anna's Uncle, but then chooses to paint him as a darker prospect. As the film progresses he seems to become more immersed and satisfied in the brutality of his environment, and more curious about ambition and power. Most unfathomably though, screenwriter Stephen Knight decides to introduce a different dimension and purpose to the character of Nikolai towards the end of the film which a) doesn't develop b) doesn't contribute to anything that already has developed, and c) makes you question the genuineness of the ninety minutes that precede it.

Anna's links to Russia and motherhood feel suspiciously orchestrated, and in this way Eastern Promises is far more guilty of the faults that last year's Breaking and Entering was unfairly maligned for. The introduction of a miscarriage back story feels deliberately confrontational, and although seems to adhere to the harsh and direct mood of the film, sparks severe inconsistencies within the character of Anna. The film can't seem to make up its mind as to whether Anna is a concerned citizen or an irrational 'mother', or, more worryingly, wants to pass her off as both. The uncertainty of her motives and their seeming opposition to one another, often makes her actions in the film feel senseless; her status as the energetic, productive presence of the film ineffectual.

Much of Eastern Promises is admittedly very intriguing but ultimately feels artificial. Because Knight plagues its characters with every complex under the sun, it's difficult to fully understand or relate to their actions. He is simply too suggestive, the biblical undertones towards the end of the film indicative of the way he constantly bands more ideas around than he knows what to do with. If Eastern Promises could say more about the culture it's representing then fair enough, but it can't, and what it does say really doesn't amount to much.

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