David Cronenberg's latest film enters the twilight world of Russian organised crime in London's East End.
Nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) finds a diary amongst the personal belongings of a Russian teenage girl who has just died after giving birth. Anna asks her Russian uncle (film director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the journal, and also engages the attention of restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who expresses keen interest in this diary of a lost girl, and makes up a frightening triumvirate of terror with his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and henchman Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As egos clash, leading to a single-minded struggle for power, the object of their attentions assumes even greater importance.
On the strength of just one viewing, I'm tempted to label this Cronenberg's strongest offering since the twisted love story that is CRASH. It's simply dripping with prime Cronenberg themes and imagery: birth, death, sexual tension, body horror in abundance and boldly underlines his position as one of the most brilliant director's of actors currently working. Watts, Cassel and Skolimowski are all excellent, but it's Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl who really excel: the former bringing light and shade to an incredibly complex individual, while the latter moves from outward charm to a terrifying persona of evil at the flick of a switch.
Highlights are many. Look out for an unbelievably brutal encounter in a Turkish bath-house (where a naked Mortensen does bloody battle in unconventional body armour), a sex scene that brings DEAD RINGERS to mind (and there's a very good reason for the chosen carnal position) and a staggering declaration of intent set in a barbers shop. This really is a treasure trove, both above and below its surface veneer, using Steven Knight's script and Peter Suschitzky's exemplary photography to show an unfamiliar side of London we'd rather not know existed.
If A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was Cronenberg's concession to the mainstream, EASTERN PROMISES demonstrates his ability to retain a wider movie-going audience while at the same time delivering the goods to his older band of followers. It's a difficult trick to keep all those balls in the air, but Cronenberg does it in spades.
Bloody, violent in the extreme and also remarkably tender at times. This really is a promise fulfilled.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.