Haunting Low Wattage Glows in Dank London Night, 24 September 2007
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
An emotionally distraught London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a mysterious diary on the body of a Russian teenage girl who died in childbirth and slowly sinks deeper into the grimy underbelly of London and uncovers a Russian mob where a lowly driver (Viggo Mortensen) is about to make a stunning play for power. Luckily for the audience, “Eastern Promises” is more in tune with screenwriter Steven Knight’s most recent film (the superb “Dirty Pretty Things”) than it is with director David Cronenberg’s previous endeavor (the criminally overrated “A History of Violence”).
Cronenberg has been honing a disturbingly minimalist directorial style in the later half of his career. It was so low-key the last time around, he actually managed to become the first person to un-direct a film with “A History of Violence.” My theory of un-direction stems from when a director films a piece of work in so minimalist a style, it actually negates any reason for the film to exist. Shockingly, this minimalist technique is put to some good use in “Eastern Promises” as it allows for the emergence of other far superior elements: the elegantly dark and gritty blue-gray cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, the evocative Russian-influenced score from Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, the crafty and tightly focused screenplay from Knight, and most importantly, the amazing performances from the entire cast.
In the lead role of Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen, in tattoos from head to toe, adds new meaning to the idea of an actor throwing himself completely into a “physical role.” He delivers a raw, tense performance that is arguably the greatest of his career.
As Anna, Naomi Watts serves as the heart and soul of the film, giving the audience someone to relate to and root for as the plot grows increasingly dark and grim. Watts has been unfairly dismissed by some as an overly emotive post-modern “scream-queen” due to her roles in films like “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring,” and “King Kong.” As she has matured as an actress, Watts has grown more subtle and nuanced in her method, and her performance here is richly textured and deeply rewarding as it emerges on the heels of her revelatory work in “The Painted Veil.” She’s the dim glow of hope in this stinking London underworld, and her character haunts the scenes of grotesque violence and criminal power plays that occur when she is off screen.
“Eastern Promises” also deserves credit for the tension it builds as the story unfolds. Cronenberg succumbs to his sadistic natural tendencies at clearly defined intervals throughout the film where shocking spurts of gore and violence rip through the minimalist style like a knife through the heart. This rising and sinking tension culminates in a Turkish sauna knife fight that is the violently dramatic flip-side of the comedic nude wrestling hotel scene in last year’s “Borat.” Like that scene, it exists only to shock, and it will have people buzzing.
Despite the inherent flaws of Cronenberg’s style which always seems to leave a bad taste in your mouth, “Eastern Promises” has just the right amount of star-power, classy production values, and shocking plot twists to be considered one of the best thrillers of 2007.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database