David Cronenberg’s latest film, Eastern Promises, focuses on the thriving secret world of London’s Eastern European crime families. Cronenberg is no stranger to creating alienated sects of human society and, in fact, is at his best when he’s allowed to dwell where most people dare not go. He is gifted with overturning normalcy and exposing the complex, twisted underbelly of humanity.
To that end, Eastern Promises does not disappoint. It is every bit the odd angle on our lives that we’ve come to expect from him. Where it comes up short is that it tells its story only halfway. By the time the film comes to an end, it feels like it’s only the end of the first act and that a harrowing fight is just around the corner. The fight never comes and the credits roll, and we’re left sitting in our seats and scratching our heads.
Brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, with an enticing premise, Cronenberg was on to something with this film about human trafficking. Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova, a midwife at a hospital who delivers a baby to a junkie teenage mother who then dies in the delivery room. Anna reads the girl’s diary in hopes of discovering any relatives who might take the child and uncovers details of a young girl given the promise of wealth in exchange for her 14-year-old body to be used as a sex slave. The girl got pregnant and that was that.
Anna seeks out the names she finds in the diary, and that leads her directly to the head of the mob, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). But she also meets a chiseled bad guy named Nickolai (Viggo Mortensen) who is either hitting on her or trying to protect her. She can’t figure out which.
The story weaves in and out of Anna’s life at home, living with her mother and uncle, and Nickolai’s life as a rising star in the mob. Both stories are compelling and together seem to be taking us to a place to which we never arrive.
What does shine through, despite the plot difficulties, is the horror of what it means to be a young girl growing up in the impoverished areas of Eastern Europe, where girls are better off being sold as prostitutes than trying to survive in their own country. What screenwriter Steven Knight and Cronenberg have attempted to do here is to sharply contrast the so-very-modern London with the uncivilized practices of the mob – two worlds so close yet completely apart.
Knight also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears, which dealt with the common practice of selling the organs of immigrants illegally. Both films depict an incompetent at best, uncaring at worst, police force that is doing nothing to prevent the exploitation of non-citizens in England.
The film is really about the performances, specifically Mortensen, who has never been better, and Vincent Cassel, who is amazing as the screw-up son of the evil mob leader. Cassel and Mortensen are so good you end up wishing the film were three hours long so that their story could be told in full. As it is, it stops in what is probably the middle of their saga. Director Cronenberg can always be counted upon to deliver at least one truly unwatchable gross-out moment. Eastern Promises does not disappoint on that score. There are several moments in the film that will make even the hardest hombre wince.
Moody and well-acted, Cronenberg’s latest effort looks beautiful and is an interesting watch, even though the story feels unfinished. Even sub-par, Cronenberg is better than most at the top of their game.