Just as he turned the cameras on the press hordes at Cannes in 2005 by snapping photos of the snapping photographers, David Cronenberg has been in the process of turning the camera—that is, his point of observation and by extension, his concerns—on a 180-degree axis. First, with A History of Violence (2005), and now, with Eastern Promises, he has decidedly shifted from his ongoing preoccupations with the body towards the ways the mind—particularly the imaginative mind—can alter reality. Although he has remarked about A History of Violence’s concept of “a fantasy of a reality of America,” more noteworthy is the sense that no film adapted from a graphic novel before or since has been so rooted in a defined, fixed, and reasonably familiar—even everyday—reality. Iconic representations aside (and they are there to pick over, for sure), this process is further developed in Eastern Promises, which provides a brick-hard and street-smart depiction of contemporary London as a vivid setting for a drama involving the ruling lord of a Russian crime family, his mercurial and violent son, their reliable and reliably stoic chauffeur, and a hospital midwife who traces a baby in her care back to the family.
This sort of shift is not new for Cronenberg. He’s a filmmaker who has progressed in a pattern nearly unique in Canadian cinema, from unabashed genre (horror, to be exact) to material defying genre, and onto projects that are unimaginable without his involvement; compare The Brood (1979), for example, to Crash. What makes each shift in Cronenberg’s cinema especially fascinating, in hindsight, is that traces of the future Cronenberg could be detected in the current one. Why was it, I wondered when I first saw my first Cronenberg with The Brood, that I detected that here was a maker of horror movies who was bound to make cinema that would test all limits and definitions, who already was clearly an auteur? (Favourite clueless note in Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide, a tome with an especial animus toward Cronenberg, re The Brood: BOMB “[Samantha] Egger eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!”) It took me a while to realize that I was responding to not only Cronenberg’s unerring ability to know the exactly right spot to place his camera and how to tell stories—his “professional” side—but his rumbling undercurrent of dissatisfaction with formulaic limitations of any kind and, more profoundly, with the limitations of human existence.
With Eastern Promises, these themes have grown beyond the circumscribed but fascinating dimensions of several of his deliberately contained and even hyper-claustrophobic worlds, expressed in various ways in Dead Ringers (1988), The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), Spider (2002), and even a supposedly non-Cronenbergian project like M. Butterfly (1993). In a kind of unexpected loop back to his past, the new film’s vastly ranging social contexts of in-grown Russian émigrés, isolated Turkish circles and thoroughly Anglicized Russian ethnics acknowledges a far larger world and communities of people that’s visible in his early horror films from The Brood to Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983). Yes, there were exploding heads and mallet-beating clones, but there were also families, offices, and social networks. A great deal of Eastern Promises entails these networks, how they define characters, and conversely, how character definition can also be deceiving.
The film begins with twinned deaths: The execution in a barber shop by a Turk syndicate of a member of the Russian Vory V Zakone crime brotherhood, and the death of a young Russian mother inducing her child’s birth. (One thing that never changes in Cronenberg’s universe: Birth is a seriously violent event.) Naomi Watts’ Anna, midwife and witness to the tragedy, tries to determine who the mother was through a diary she has left behind, also a possible key to determining the father’s identity. The diary entries lead her to a Russian restaurant in a not-so-tony section of London (tellingly named “Trans-Siberian Restaurant”), and her first sightings of owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his impulsive son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and, out front at the curb, the solid, statuesque presence of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who drives everyone around and operates with his lips sealed tighter than a drum.
Who are these people? The layers through which Anna wades don’t simply reveal a carefully concealed culture and ethic—and make no mistake, the Vory V Zakone live by and enforce their own internal codes, rules, and rituals—but, through the double-identity of Nikolai, a medium through which a guise, a lie, is the only means to uncover truth. Right now, there’s no combination of director and actor that displays a hotter fire and cooler intelligence than the Cronenberg-Mortensen tandem. The actor is perfectly matched to the director’s new concentration on the Real, but he’s also acutely—even obsessively—conscious of the powers of role-playing as they inform character, so that both his paired Tom-Joey personae in A History of Violence and his even more mysterious Nikolai in Eastern Promises trace patterns of concealment-to-disrobing. The key difference is immediately obvious: Tom is a good husband who thinks he has buried his old self as Joey, Philly mob hit man; Nikolai is a loyal servant of a different mob who’s actually an undercover, unnamed agent. Superficially, this might suggest that Tom-Joey is a considerably more rewarding role, and Mortensen’s performance of gestures and understated tension—certainly one of the most interesting film performances of recent years—would appear to reinforce that suggestion. But Mortensen’s and Cronenberg’s strategy for Nikolai is more radical in concept and execution than would be possible for Tom-Joey, and helps chart Eastern Promises as an even more accomplished work.
Cronenberg introduces Nikolai as a soldier sheathed in the sleek, stark black suits favoured by urban swinger sharks and Russian mobsters alike; his slicked-back hair, intact and impervious to wind or rain, is like a helmet. The only visible feature is his face, impermeable and seemingly made out of some new type of flesh-colored granite. (A fresh Cronenberg special effect? No, Viggo using his own musculature as a mask.) But, with time, and as the diary in Anna’s possession—translated, in a crucial and staggering supporting performance by none other than Jerzy Skolimowski as Anna’s difficult Russian Uncle Stepan—surrenders more of its secrets, Nikolai is literally disrobed. First, in a blistering, brutal and intimate fight in a bath house, Nikolai is naked, battling for his life in an ironic twist of mistaken identity. (The man who isn’t what he seems to be is taken for someone else altogether, at which point Eastern Promises reaches a peak of narrative ecstasy.) Further, his body is revealed as a tattoo-covered map of symbols unique to Vory V Zakone members who have done time in prison. Nikolai’s own skin is his passport to the underworld, through which he can pass undetected, accepted, and, then, in a bizarre kind of cleansing ritual combined with a graduation, promoted by way of more tattoos applied to his knees—code that he’ll never kneel to anyone. The actor has exchanged one costume for another within the concealed identity of his actual character, and the supreme filmmaker of bodies and anatomy both intact and ruptured has found an entirely new way to visually and dramatically project language through the surface of the body itself, but within the framework of actual social relations.
It’s no small matter that the narrative is the work of screenwriter Steve Knight, who brought forth Dirty Pretty Things (2002), another London drama about the nefarious abuses of the innocent by foreign underground elements. Cronenberg was for a long time his own screenwriter, but he has recently turned to the work of other writers for inspiration, and with Knight, he has found a voice that amplifies and reverberates with his own. Eastern Promises is a fascinating case of a film made under the intense gaze of a supreme auteur and written by the separate but equally potent hand of a writer. Where one ends and the other begins defies trace, in the same way that Cronenberg’s closing shot on a possibly contented Nikolai defies any easy conclusions.