Any time a new movie is shot in black and white, people use adjectives like “stark” and “realistic” to describe it. Sometimes they’ll combine the two: “stark realism” and so forth. The style is supposed to be evocative of grittier, dirtier times (can anyone imagine a colorized Grapes of Wrath?), times when people kept on keepin’ on as best they could while dealing with the harsh realities of daily life.
The black and white cinematography in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises compares and contrasts the everyday lives of middle-class Londoners with the raw, terror-fueled violence of expatriate Russian gangsters. Additionally, as in other, earlier movies, the truly bloody moments are made all the scarier because of the lack of color; everything feels realer while still seeming authentic. (Not an easy feat; for ultrarealism that seems insincere, try reality television.)
A midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) helps deliver a baby to an unidentified young girl who dies during childbirth; Anna, being a Good Samaritan, decides to try to discover the girl’s family, so that the newborn can live with them instead of slipping away into the red-tape-ridden foster-care system. Aided by a diary found in the girl’s handbag, Anna winds up at a Russian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who promises to help Anna in her quest by translating the diary from Russian to English.
Meanwhile, a lower-level employee of Semyon named Nikolai (a sensational Viggo Mortensen) is slowly moving his way up the ladder of Semyon’s empire, which is of course not wholly invested in restauranting. Nikolai is one of those marvelously inscrutable figures who knows far more than what he says, which is precious little, in constrast – there’s that word again – with Semyon’s own son, Kirill (an equally wonderful Vincent Cassel), who is boisterous, petulant, and covetous. The film manages to make its audience question Nikolai’s intentions and loyalties; is he merely in this murderous racket for his own gain?
Steven Knight’s screenplay is tight, coarse, and even a bit gruesome; it’s definitely not for the weak of stomach or heart. (A dead man’s fingers are removed in a very early scene, for one thing, and there’s an extended fight scene involving a nude Mortensen in a steam bath.) As with any other suspense thriller worth its salt, there are plenty of plausible twists and turns – but none can be easily foreseen, and they aren’t simply strung together as red herrings designed to just continually shock the audience, which is the sort of thing a younger Cronenberg might have attempted.
All four leads are terrific; Watts is an improvement over Maria Bello, who costarred with Mortensen in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (maybe he’s got something for cute young blonde actresses). But this isn’t one of those innocent-young-heroine-saves the day movies, either. You know the ones. The girl with seemingly no talents, smarts, or powers somehow defeats a tough, organized opponent using only her womanly wiles and spunkiness. No, not here. Anna is intelligent and resourceful, yes, but the real conflict isn’t between her and the evil Russian mafia, it’s a conflict within the crime family itself. The dichotomy between Nikolai, the outsider becoming the boss’s favorite, and Kirill, the son at war with his own inner demons, is richly detailed with a modicum of dialog (mostly Kirill’s). Cassel and Mortensen are so wonderful together, you almost think that their characters ARE brothers instead of one being naturally superior (by birthright) to the other.
Cronenberg’s come a long way since making slasher pics in Canada (this is, in fact, the first of his movies that was filmed entirely outside of Canada); it’s as if he woke up a few years ago and decided he wasn’t going to make any gross-out pics like The Fly, Rabid, Scanners, or Dead Ringers. Coupled with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is raw, energetic, and stunningly filmed.