David Cronenberg is never going to make a sequel to Babe, that is, unless the lovable pig suddenly begins to resemble Cujo more than anything else. He is a man who has made his mark on modern cinema with violence shown in an ironically detached and yet highly stylised manner, meaning Eastern Promises will come as little surprise to fans of auteur. However, for me personally, this latest offering often suffers from the same limitations and weaknesses of his previous outing with Viggo Mortensen, A History Of Violence.
A tour guide into the depraved world of the Russian mob is Anna (Naomi Watts), whose father was himself Russian but seems to have little ties to her heritage. Finding the diary of a 14 year old prostitute who died during childbirth, she seeks out the owner of a restaurant, Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) whose card was within so that she can seek out the child’s family. Her uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) warns her not to get involved but nothing can be taken back leading the enigmatic “driver” Nikolai (Mortensen) to take a special interest.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is; the central premise is relatively weak and more so, suffers somewhat from issues of pacing. Taking place from roughly Christmas to New Years, it still requires a large portion of the movie for anything significant to take place. Combined with excerpts from the diary as an omniscient narrator, the plot focuses too much on reminding us of Anna’s motivations, when Watts is more than capable of doing so herself, rather than furthering the story. Worse still, there are some events that take place that never feel fully worked out, left dangling even when the movie is long over, a conclusion of sorts put forward.
The saving grace is the subtle and genuine performances of the central cast; the comfort with which Watts plays her part is palpable, never forcing it, emoting more with a simple glance than some could do with an entire monologue. At times it feels as if the character itself is the only thing limiting her presence, a barrier she has not yet fully learnt how to overcome. Mortensen on the other hand, walks with such confidence and swagger that he manages to instill both fear and a sense of trust within us; he is capable of despicable acts but possesses a calm elegance, as if he follows some higher code or dicta. This might seem relatively simple but given the brutal battle not far from the conclusion of the piece, few people would be able to recover and appear anything less than depraved (a scene which again pushes Cronenberg’s boundaries for abject violence and have without doubt, elicited some degree of wolf whistles). However it is Seymon, who embodies cold efficiency; a man seemingly incapable of hiding his true intentions to any significantly degree and as a result, is entirely captivating.
Despite the inroads made with acting, the structural issues already mentioned grow even more noticeable towards the end, a twist coming in the plot that although reasonable, is too late in the game and can do nothing more than bring about a rushed finale. Intriguing but under-developed, Cronenberg’s latest piece is another satisfactory entry into popular culture.