Monday, September 10, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Eastern Promises"

(Gala Presentation)
(Canada/UK, 96 minutes)
Written by: Steve Knight
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski

Whether adapting a best-selling novel (The Dead Zone) or a smash Broadway play (M Butterfly), remaking a notorious ‘50s potboiler (The Fly), or an acclaimed graphic novel (A History Of Violence), David Cronenberg infuses the original author’s vision with the obsessive themes and recurring imagery of his earlier, self-penned works (in film lingo, “Cronenbergian” has become an adjective as instantly resonant as “Hitchcockian”), even though he insists that this is often accidental (the mind reels at what he would have done with Flashdance or Top Gun, two Hollywood blockbusters he was offered). Eastern Promises, while at first glance a more conventional exercise than say, the minimalist psychodrama Spider (based on Patrick McGrath’s first-person novel), has much more to offer than its formal Syd-Field-friendly structure and crowd-pleasing melodrama might suggest.

Marketed as a “companion piece” to 2005’s A History Of Violence, Cronenberg’s newest genre-bender re-teams him with Viggo Mortenson in Guy Ritchie territory: a “mob” yarn which can also be read as another exploration of “biology as destiny”, but here, it’s not a venereal parasite, or an experimental skin graft that will pit soul against flesh, but one’s own family blood.

Midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) fails to save the life of Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a fourteen-year-old addict/prostitute who is rushed to her London hospital in labour. But the child lives and Anna sets out to find the girl’s family to give the baby girl--whom she names “Christine”--a proper home. A card in the girl’s possession leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is owned by the paternal Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose gentle demeanour betrays a ruthless loyalty to the code of the vory v zakone--the Russian mafia. He demands that the diary be turned over to him for translation.

Meanwhile, Anna’s mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) and her Russian-born uncle Stepan (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, of the Cannes-winning “Moonlighting”) have already started translating Tatiana’s journal and urge her to keep out of it—according to the girl’s confessions, Semyon is the one responsible for raping her and forcing her into a a life of prostitution.

Semyon's chauffer and “cleaner” Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is sponsored to become a full member of the crime family, due largely to his repeated and patient defence of Semyon's hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who had arranged a hit on a rival Chechen gangleader without his father’s approval. The Chechen gang vow revenge and embarks on London, but Semyon plans to save his inept son and trick loyal Nikolai into taking Kirill's place at a meeting at the baths. Thinking he’s Kirill, the Chechen assassins attack Nikolai but he kills them both. He ends up at Anna’s hospital, where she tends to his vicious injuries.

Nikolai reveals that he, too, harbours a secret. He’s actually an undercover member of the Russian Security Services, and has been working with a Scotland Yard detective Yuri (Donald Sumpter) to bring Semyon down; leaving him coded messages along with the bodies he’s been disposing in the Thames River. He already knows of the contents of the diary, and with Semyon out of the picture he would be the most powerful member and able to dismantle the London branch of the crime family completely from within.

Mortenson’s stoic intelligence brings shading to what could have been theatrical, 2-D character: the tattooed hit man (Nikolai’s body art—literally to illustrate his commitment to crime family--chronicles a “history of violence” of its own). The degree to which he fearlessly immerses himself in the role is impressive for an actor who could likely retire from his action figure revenue. The already-notorious bath house brawl, which he performs naked, is blistering--and exhausting--in its visceral impact, but Mortenson’s wounded countenance make you feel Nikolai’s betrayal with every slice and shattered limb.

It’s hard to compete with Mortenson’s transformation, but Watts, always a versatile actress, brings steely grace and a maternal doggedness (Anna has lost her own baby to a miscarriage) to her crusade. Cassell gets to have a lot more fun tearing into the “Fredo” role as the libidinous psycho Kirill. Meuller-Stahl’s every appearance seethes with hushed malevolence.

Stephen Knight, who wrote the searing Stephen Frears class drama Dirty Pretty Things, provides Cronenberg with a perfectly structured and briskly paced screenplay, which offers plenty of opportunity to explore the nuances and iconography of yet another subculture while spinning a yarn that’s more audience friendly than much of what comprises his iconoclastic, often-polarizing filmography.

Cronenberg’s usual company is in top form: cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, art director Carol Spier, editor Ronald Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. It’s also one of the first films he’s shot outside Canada, with his hometown of Toronto having stood in for Maine, Pennsylvania, and Tangiers, and Montreal the setting for his Tax-Shelter Era classics Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. Suschitzky's restrained camera and lack of obvious stylization (his aesthetic reminds me of that of the late great Freddie Francis)--coupled with Spier’s knack for resonant detail—suits a crime yarn that is more concerned about that which lives in the margins.

It’s also short—clocking in at a taut hour-and-a-half--at a time when goofball comedies like Knocked Up run as long as Terence Malick meditations.

Eastern Promises shows that at the age of 64 Cronenberg has lost none of his subversive streak and is an artist at the top of his form. Obviously, Toronto film fest audiences felt the same way, as they awarded it the Audience Prize as Best Film. Be sure to catch it now, currently in theatres.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis