Eastern Promises, a David Cronenberg film about the Russian mob in
London, manages to accomplish something nearly impossible: it starts
with a completely implausible detail, then weaves its web so carefully
that it traps the viewer inside and makes him forget that he didn't
believe the premise to begin with.
A Russian prostitute, only fourteen years old and gravid with
child, dies in a London hospital. She had been physically abused and
was a heroin addict, but the medicos manage to save a healthy baby
from her womb. The compassionate midwife, who lost a baby of her own,
impulsively decided to steal the dead woman's diary and to find the
family of the infant.
So far so good. Maybe it's a bit far-fetched that the girl was
carrying around her diary, but sometimes a plot requires a little jump
start, and we can imagine certain circumstances which might have
provoked her to run away, diary in hand. What we cannot imagine is
what happens next. Inside the girl's diary is a business card from a
Russian restaurant. In her quest for the prostitute's family, the
naive midwife takes the diary to the restaurant, and eventually agrees
to let the kindly owner translate it for her.
Now, I'm no expert on the underworld, but I have heard a thing or
two about forced prostitution, and I know that about the only place
that business card could lead her is to the person or persons who
kidnapped the girl and caused the injuries that killed her. If I were
a simple London midwife from a middle class family, I would not want
to have any dealings with those people, especially since the diary
might provide some kind of evidence against desperate men who would do
anything to destroy it and silence anyone who knew of its contents.
The midwife not only allows the restaurant owner to read the diary,
but also tells him her real name and blabs that her Russian-speaking
uncle has read parts of it.
It seems to me that anyone in her position would be cautious enough
(1) to get the diary translated by somebody who could not be connected
to the many crimes implied by the prostitute's fate; (2) not to reveal
her own identity to anyone connected to the dead prostitute; (3) to
inform Scotland Yard at some point. If not from the beginning, then
certainly when she knew what was in the diary. If she employs no other
caution, she should at least be smart enough not to let anyone at the
restaurant know who she really is. The midwife's actions are just too
naive and too reckless to be credible. I can't imagine anyone putting
herself into the position that this woman assumes.
One more detail stretches our credulity to the breaking point. Why
did the mobsters let the child prostitute carry her baby to full term?
A pretty and shapely young girl has great economic value to them, but
they can't get much value out of a mother-to-be in her eighth month.
Furthermore, a baby is living DNA evidence. Since the mother is
obviously underage, the baby's existence is absolute legal proof that
somebody committed statutory rape, even if forced congress cannot be
proved, and the baby's DNA is irrefutable evidence of just who that
somebody is. One has to think that the mobsters would force the girl
into an abortion, as they forced her into everything else.
The gentlemanly restaurateur, needless to say, actually turns out
to be the ruthless local Don Corleonov, as is probably known to
everyone in London except the midwife. I guess most people could
figure it out from the name of the restaurant, The Mob's False Front,
and the tattooed, heavy-set men who are always standing at the doorway
with their arms crossed. If not, then I suppose they'd figure it out
from the sign which offers a "25% mobster discount." The mob boss
realizes even before reading the diary that it must include
incriminating information about him and his family. He also realizes
that he must eliminate the uncle who has read it.
At this point, the other two main characters enter the picture. The
restaurateur has a hotheaded and violent son who is also weak and
feckless, making him both Sonny and Fredo Corleone in one body. The
son's lieutenant is hard-nosed, manipulative, diplomatic, soft-spoken
and smart. Although tough as nails, he's even compassionate on
occasion. It is obvious that he, not the mobster's biological son, is
the Michael Corleone of the family. The son and the lieutenant get
involved in the mobster's plan to eliminate the diary and the trail of
evidence it creates.
The film succeeds in several ways.
First, the plot has enough surprises that the film could work on
that basis alone. The audience is drawn in by wondering how the
midwife and her family can survive, by curiosity about the mysterious
lieutenant, and by the uncertain identity of the baby's father. Adding
even more onions to the plot stew, director David Cronenberg adds a
sub-plot about the battles between the Russian family and some rival
Turks and Chechens. The sub-plot is not directly related to the plot
about the baby, but is absolutely necessary to establish the
relationships among the three main Russian mobsters, and includes some
twists of its own.
Second, the film is rich in details of characterization and
atmosphere. It provides a well-researched look inside the ritualized
world of Russian mobsters, focusing especially on the importance of
their tattoos. Within that context, it also paints its three main
characters in great detail and with complexity. The hothead brother,
played by Vincent Cassell, may be vicious and deplorable, but he also
exhibits tenderness for a child and great love for his lieutenant. In
fact, he loves his lieutenant a bit too much, if you catch my drift.
There is a strong indication that his savagery and his brutal
womanizing are overcompensation for a nature which is inherently not
tough enough for the mob. It is the other two mobsters who lend the
film its most sinister and scheming menace. Armin Mueller-Stahl, as
the king, and Viggo Mortensen, as the man who would be king, are the
types of men who keep their counsel, revealing no more of themselves
than is absolutely required. Their games are cerebral, and their
insidious threats are masked by ostensible civility. Unlike the
Cassell character, they do not walk around with a metaphorical
flashing sign which reads "I'm violent," and they are therefore more
dangerous to deal with and more difficult to avoid.
Third, the film offers a taste of Cronenberg shock therapy. These
men do not carry guns. They like their killing to be personal. They
kill with linoleum knives and box cutters, the sorts of weapons that
can cause agonizing fatal injuries but can also be justified to
policemen. And they attack when a man is most vulnerable: in a barber
chair, or naked in steam room. After an unexpected betrayal, Viggo
Mortensen has one fight scene in which he is completely naked and
unarmed, fighting against two fully-dressed, knife-wielding men. The
scene is a masterful piece of cinema because it so powerfully conveys
Viggo's vulnerability, gets the audience rooting for him as an
impossible underdog, and demonstrates just what a tough cookie he is.
Imagine Sonny Corleone walking away from the toll booth incident, and
you'll know what I mean. Because the scene is so graphic and because
Viggo is a naked superstar, people will be discussing the choreography
of this fight for years to come, as we still talk today of the famous
nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in
Love. In Viggo's struggle, as in the Reed/Bates battle, there is no
homosexuality involved, and I am not one who enjoys navigating the
uncertain currents of subtext, but one simply cannot ignore the
subtext when a naked man is being penetrated with a curved knife,
particularly when that naked man (Viggo) is obviously the real love
interest of his closeted homosexual buddy (Cassell).
There are, in fact, so many interesting things going on in this
film that the audience completely forgets the implausible gimmicks
that led the midwife to the mobsters in the first place. We just have
to accept that premise as we have to accept any fantasy premise like
the Matrix. Once that premise is accepted, the script carries us along
and makes us surrender our initial incredulity, so that we forget it
started as a far-fetched fantasy concept and come to accept it as the
grim everyday reality of the London underworld. That's the magic of
I have never been a great fan of David Cronenberg. I think his
films are OK, but I don't understand the passion of his most rabid
fans. Having said that, and having duly considered the competitive
field, I would support this film as a Best Picture nominee. (Well,
unless there are five really great films waiting to surprise us in
December.) It's a good story with vivid characters, original insight
into an unexplored subculture, and a tremendous visceral punch. I
would also support acting nominations for Armin Mueller-Stahl in his
best role since Shine, and Viggo Mortensen, who really went the extra
mile to create this character. In fact, Viggo did so much research on
Russian tattoos that Cronenberg ended up re-writing the script to
incorporate the tattoos as important elements of plot and atmosphere.