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From the erupting parasites of 1975’s Shivers to the lust-inducing wounds of 1996’s Crash, human flesh has always been David Cronenberg’s favorite canvas. In Eastern Promises, the Canadian director returns to dank East London, the site of 2002’s Spider, to tell the story of a Russian mobster whose career is written on his skin. It’s a simple tale, at least by Cronenberg standards, and it’s not one of his most philosophically resonant films. But it is vividly staged and superbly acted, and it includes one of his most potent evocations of the body’s vulnerability.
Because it’s a gangster picture starring Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises inevitably recalls Cronenberg’s previous feature, 2005’s A History of Violence. Where that movie was an overpraised fable of American corruption, the new film takes a globalist’s view of greed, ambition, and brutality. The globalist here is Steve Knight, whose script for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things effectively conjured London’s immigrant underworld while spinning an implausible and ultimately sentimental scenario. Knight’s screenplay for Eastern Promises—reworked by Cronenberg with some help from Mortensen, who researched the Russian mob tattoo code featured in the film—is much more convincing. Although it has elements of fantasy, they’re anchored by the film’s shadowy atmosphere and sheer ferocity.
The movie begins with two bloody events: a throat-slitting and a near-miscarriage. The significance of the former isn’t revealed for a while, but the latter’s narrative function is immediately clear: It brings London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) into the action. The baby lives, but the mother dies, and Anna learns that the woman was Tatiana, a 14-year-old prostitute, imported to Britain by the Vory V Zakone gang. Tatiana leaves behind a diary that’s indecipherable to Anna, the U.K.-born daughter of a Russian father and a British mother (Sinéad Cusack). She then gives it to her gruff, old-fashioned uncle Stepan (veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), who is reluctant to read it. So Anna goes to prominent Russian businessman Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who runs a plush restaurant. He’s dismissive of her until Anna mentions the diary, which clearly interests him.
Urbane and utterly ruthless, Semyon runs the local branch of Vory V Zakone with as much hindrance as help from his impulsive son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill has become dependent on the family’s driver, Nikolai (Mortensen), a low-level but cool-headed thug. Anna is also aided by Nikolai, who clearly knows more than he admits; he quietly abets Anna’s search even while Kirill grooms him for greater responsibilities. After receiving some new tattoos advertising his increased status, Nikolai visits a steam bath. In an unforgettable scene, the naked mobster fights hand-to-hand against a knife-wielding attacker. The gun-free sequence is the kind of moment whose intensity makes viewers instinctively guard their own insecure flesh—it conveys physical peril in a way that pistol-packing new flicks like 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ’Em Up can’t touch.
One of the film’s other strengths is something that seldom works in such international productions: its multinational cast. Mortensen is American, Watts is Australian, Mueller-Stahl is German, Cassel is French, and Skolimowski is Polish, yet all are convincing in their diverse roles. Anna, who has her own tragedy to atone for, is over her head but too stubborn to drown. Mueller-Stahl, who can be either avuncular or icy, has never been frostier. And Mortensen, while not showing quite the night-and-day range of his role in A History of Violence, proves that one personality is never enough for him. Like Dirty Pretty Things, the movie ends a little too easily, and the questions it raises don’t linger. What does abide, however, is the film’s assaultive power. Eastern Promises can’t literally break the skin, but watching it borders on a corporeal experience.
The Beatles’ music holds up well in Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s newfangled retro musical, but the same can’t be said for the ’60s. Essentially a remake of Hair with better songs, this attempt at a magical history tour makes the era appear frivolous and inconsequential, in large part because Taymor emphasizes looks over feelings.