Sunday, December 16, 2007


EASTERN PROMISES
(Review)

I have two all-time favourite directors. One is David Lynch. The other is another namesake of mine, David Cronenberg.
My first exposure to Cronenberg’s virulent brand of cinema was in the now vanished (and still sorely missed) Magallanes Theater. The film was Scanners. Enraptured by visions of exploding heads, and aided by the magick of the Betamax, I subsequently sought out this man’s earlier work, and was further mesmerized by Rabid and The Brood.
To date, I have seen all but two of Cronenberg’s feature films; I’ve yet to lay eyes on his debut, Shivers, which has thus far managed to elude me, through Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, VCD, and now DVD. Slippery blighter, that one. His racing movie, Fast Company, is also sight unseen, as far as I’m concerned.
In that more than a quarter-century of association, I have only been disappointed twice by Mr. Cronenberg, with his adaptations of M. Butterfly and Spider.*
Now he’s back, teamed-up once again with his A History of Violence star, Viggo Mortensen, with Eastern Promises.

Cronenberg’s latest is an excellent and controlled morality tale involving a young English midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), who crosses paths with the Russian Mafia when she comes into possession of a diary belonging to an under-aged girl who died while giving birth to a baby.
Like A History of Violence before it, Eastern Promises observes the shuddering impact that occurs when the world of crime collides with ordinary, everyday life, and perhaps even more tragically, with the dream of an ordinary, everyday life.
Like Violence, it also boasts some very impressive performances.

Aside from Watts and Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel also grace the screen, as father and son, Semyon and Kirill. (A tattooed Mortensen plays Kirill’s driver, Nikolai.)
Considering the accents involved in this one, the performances here are arguably even better than those in Violence. One has to acknowledge the fascinating display of thespian prowess when an Australian plays an Englishwoman, and an American, a Frenchman, and a German, all play Russians, and you wouldn’t know it by listening to them.**

Granted, the plot isn’t terribly complicated, but what Steven Knight‘s script manages to do is to lay down some very interesting characters, with complexities that are skillfully tapped into by Cronenberg and his brilliant cast.
Cronenberg also brings in frequent collaborators Howard Shore on music, and cinematographer extraordinaire Peter Suschitzky, to make Eastern Promises an even more fulfilling viewing experience.

Yes, there are no Mugwumps or Brundleflies or video assassins here. Not any longer. Cronenberg has apparently left behind his days as the King of Venereal Horror. As evidenced by A History of Violence, and now, Eastern Promises, his characters no longer find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. These days, we’ll have to settle for extreme instead.
Despite the grounding in the more mundane aspects of existence though, current Cronenberg cinema continues to be riveting and absorbing, and still displays textured performances that draw the audience in, and seduce them to stay, despite instinctive feelings of revulsion towards the on-screen action.
The spell he weaves today is still as potent and all-encompassing as it was in 1977, when a porn star’s armpit became a vector for disease, or in 1979, when Samantha Eggar externalized her rage into murderous dwarves, or in 1981, when a man’s head exploded in full Technicolor glory, and a 13-year-old boy became a life-long devotee.
Yes, Cronenbergia may no longer be as bizarre as it once was, but it’s still a brilliant place to visit.

* I haven’t seen Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in a donkey’s age, though I suspect that after having gotten over the initial shock (and disappointment) of the absence of any hint of body horror in it, and in light of his more recent work, I may actually appreciate it today, certainly more than I did back in 1983.

** Well, technically, Watts was born in England, then raised in Australia, thus, her Australian accent.
And perhaps ironically—given his role in Eastern Promises as a displaced Russian living in England—Mueller-Stahl was born in Tilsit, in East Prussia, Germany, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945, and populated by Russian citizens once the original German residents had either evacuated or been expelled.
Tilsit is now Sovetsk, Russia.

Parting shot: Aside from the 3 Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture Drama, Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for Viggo Mortensen, and Best Score for Howard Shore), Eastern Promises has also been recognized by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, who gave a nod to Mortensen for Best Actor.
Check out the 2008 Golden Globe nominees I’m excited about in Afterthoughts (33) in the Archive.

(Eastern Promises OS courtesy of impawards.com.)

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