Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Promises delivers

David Cronenberg has made some astonishing films: for me, The Brood, The Fly (1986), and Dead Ringers come immediately to mind. But in a remarkably consistent career I don't recall any one image in his work that has affected me as deeply as one early in his latest film, Eastern Promises, which Focus Features opens Sept. 14. It's a simple, clinically observed shot of an infant girl on a respirator, clinging to life. Cronenberg has had malign children in his films before; this tableau, while customarily unsentimental, indicates a new and more direct line to human connection, one that audiences who have recoiled from his futureshock visions acn instantly relate to.

Lest we think the director has mellowed, I should add that this shot is preceded by a gory throat-slitting (the first of two or three in the film) and the bloody suicide of the child's mother, a 14-year-old Russian immigrant, adrift and hopeless at Christmastime in London. As much a part of the Cronenberg condition as it is of the human one, violence suffuses Eastern Promises. (Not for nothing was the title of his last film A History of Violence, a title he was born to use.) But so does a mellow, melancholy air, and a gentleness that goes hand-in-hand with the rough stuff. It proves a rich and satisfying borscht of a film.

Focus invited me to an hourlong roundtable interview session with Cronenberg, star Viggo Mortensen (or, as Lora says with a sigh, Viggo), co-star Vincent Cassel (a bigger, more reflective guy than I would have imagined given his runty-seeming, hard-charging roles in films like Irreversible and the last two Ocean's pictures), and screenwriter Steve Knight, the humanist author of the excellent Dirty Pretty Things and Amazing Grace. These aren't the best situations; my fellow scribes were congenial but there's little chance for significant headway into a production. (The Village Voice got more out of the writer and director.) Still, it was a chance to say hello to Cronenberg, a filmmaker I've long admired, and he proved as amusing and off-the-cuff as I've heard that he is--I guess if he weren't, no actor would readily do the distasteful things they are obliged to in his films. And I spotted Larry King and UK Office star Martin Freeman in the lobby of the host hotel, so that was two more sightings for the scrapbook of my mind.

But back to that baby, who, unlike the tyke in last week's bomb Shoot 'Em Up is fortunate to find an ally in midwife Anna, played by Naomi Watts. Unlike, say, Charlize Theron, Watts dresses down quite easily. After a miscarriage and a breakup Anna is in emotional hiding with her concerned mother, Helen (Sinead Cusack) and her blustering Russian-born uncle Stepan (director Jerzy Skolimowski), who brags of KGB connections. Stepan translates the diary Anna found on the baby's mother, Tatiana, an account of an increasingly grim spiral into degradation centered on a posh Russian restaurant owned by the courtly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon offers to continue the translation, an offer Anna rebuffs, which unknowingly puts her into grave danger. Semyon is the London head of the Vory V Zakone mob, whose son, enforcer Kirill (Cassel), is eager to please his remote father by taking on the dirty work of the brotherhood. On his rounds Kirill is accompanied by family chauffeur Nikolai (Mortensen), who keeps check on the younger man's impulsiveness and idiosyncrasies, even during brothel visits. As the diary yields explosive secrets Anna finds herself drawn to Nikolai, in an unusual co-dependent relationship reminiscent of noirs like The Reckless Moment (and its remake, The Deep End). It's not love, but a mutual curiosity about each other, which Knight frames as a multifaceted inquiry into the nature of good and evil.

Good as all the actors are--Cassel, in particular, brings a few more tones to his portrayal than I suspected he had--this is Mortensen's show. Accompanying the inner journey the soft-spoken actor makes in the part are two layers of externals. He looks damn good in the suits that Denise Cronenberg (the director's costumer sister, one of his designer regulars) has tailored for him, like Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown good. Beneath that, on his skin, are dozens of intricate tattoos, which in Russian mobspeak tell the story of his ascent to the top echelons of organizational power. (This visual element is one that, not unexpectedly, Cronenberg asked Knight to highlight in his script, which began as a documentary on East European human trafficking.) In the movie's sure-to-be-talked-about action highlight, Mortensen's fully exposed hide is flayed by two knife-wielding goons in a fantastically choreographed, shot (by Peter Suschitzky who I interviewed in 1997 about Cronenberg's film of Crash) and edited (Ronald Sanders) steambath fight scene that had the audience screaming at the screen. What really registers is how vulnerable the tough Nikolai is when his protective layers are peeled away, a change that prepares you for a waterfront ending roiling with the primal values of a D.W. Griffith silent feature.

Crafted with great assurance, and streamlined to an eventful 100 minutes, Eastern Promises makes a fitting companion piece to the mob story A History of Violence, the AC to its DC (not intentional, the director explained, just a matter of funding falling into place). At the roundtable, Cronenberg said that he's directing an opera of The Fly, written by its composer Howard Shore (who also wrote the new film's Russian-inflected score). "If I fail, I can just say it's a composer's medium and blame that," he kidded. In his own field, Eastern Promises finds him on terra firma.

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