A self-admitted David Cronenberg fan from one of my previous articles, I have fallen back today on yet another superlative Cronenberg film upon finding that all DVD copies of Werner Herzog's seemingly promising documentary Into The Abyss (released in late 2011) stop 10 minutes short of the end.
Eastern Promises, Cronenberg's 2007 masterpiece is a film that is so rich in its atmosphere, details, and characters that it can and ought to be revisited every year, or every few anyway, by any one who might love the classic gangster story reinvented by a master film-maker, or really anyone who just loves a ripping good yarn.
Cronenberg has evolved from his days of psychological horror into a film-maker who is now a subtle master of weaving the terrifying into the seemingly mundane. In Eastern Promises, which is set perfectly in a foggy grey toned London, Anna Khitrova a mid-wife, played by Naomi Watts, finds a diary on the body of a young unidentified woman who dies while giving birth to a baby girl. Khitrova is of Russian origin and as she looks through the diary she realises it is written in Russian. She takes the diary to her slightly troublesome, grumpy, old-fashioned uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), who after glancing through it, refuses to translate it, urging caution.
Anna, however, who has become increasingly attached to the baby girl, starts to look for the "Trans-Siberian" - a restaurant, whose card she finds in the dead girl, Tatiana's, diary. She turns up at the restaurant and encounters the patriarch/owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) - a soothing figure who fusses around her, asks her dead father's name, makes her taste his famous borscht and agrees to translate the diary. Anna leaves the photocopied pages of the diary. While she is at the restaurant she encounters the vicious Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's petulant son and his enigmatic driver Nikolai Luhzin (Viggo Mortensen) for the first time.
When Anna returns home, Stepan has grudgingly translated a small part of Tatiana's diary. It is clear that Tatiana was a young girl trafficked from Russia and held forcibly in a Russian mob-run brothel run by the infamous "Vory" wing of the mob. Even more distressingly, it seems that Tatiana had been raped by Kirrill, Semyon's son.
As Anna investigates further she is both warned and abetted by the inscrutable Nikolai whose intentions are still unclear. As we start to puzzle out the various twists in the intriguing plot, we are treated to a number of unforgettable scenes, one of which involves Mr Mortensen's character, Nikolai, fighting off a pair of hired assassins, with deadly curved knives, while stark naked in a Turkish bath.
Each character is lovingly fleshed out, Anna's investigative drive is not annoying, as some main characters tend to be when excessively driven; Kirill turns out to be more of an abused son than an arch villian, and of course, there is the endlessly wonderful Viggo Mortensen who is able to make even a taciturn mob-driver into an arresting character whose every move is fascinating to watch.
In the end, Eastern Promises rises above its other genre-typical counterparts because of its unflinching look into the heart of darkness. There is a world of evil out there and watching Eastern Promises, entertaining though it may be, does leave a chill in the heart, the last scene in particular.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available in the writer's favourite DVD store: Music and Expression, Thamel, Phone # 014700092