Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg – 2007



Cronenberg is one of my top, top most favorite guys working, and Eastern Promises ranks very high on a list masterful pictures. Naomi Watts is a maternity nurse who is working when a fourteen-year-old Russian girl is brought in hemorrhaging horribly. The girl dies in childbirth but her daughter survives. Watts, in hopes of finding the name of a relative or a form of contact, takes a diary from the dead girl. She hopes to have her Russian uncle translate the text. Inside that diary is hell.

He tells her to forget such things, that the diary is dangerous. This is the same guy who earlier told her, her baby died insider her because her lover was black. He’s old school and a bid gnarly. So Nursey goes to a club she finds a card from in the diary. There she meets the creepiest most soft-spoken gangster ever, Semyon, portrayed with masterful restraint by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Semyon exudes implied threat with his every word, his every stance. When he asks Watts if she always works at the hospital, it gives me chills every time.

Soon we meet Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai, a driver and bodyguard for “prince” Kirill, Semyon’s drunk and possibly homosexual son. Kirill has had a Vor killed for spreading rumors of his queerness and Nikolai helps him cover up the crime. The dynamic of these two characters is complex. On one hand Kirill actually feels a genuine love for Nikolai while simultaneously resenting the way his father responds to him. On the other hand, Nikolai is never playing anyone straight. Even at the picture’s end it is hard to decipher his motives.

Tatiana’s diary reveals the dark secrets of Semyon’s world, and Cronenberg gives us through this tale an eye-opening look at the world of human trafficking. It’s done behind closed doors, and often with the initial participation of the girls. The diary says, “My friend tells me of a club in London where girls can go to sing. They can make more in a night than here in a week.” These clubs are forced prostitution rings. Once the girls are in town they are no longer human beings. They are a good to be sold or used by the king.

What’s brilliant is the way that Cronenberg uses these details as background instead of as the main focus of the plot. Essentially, after ingratiating himself to Semyon, Semyon has Nikolai made, just so he can serve him up to the Chechens who want his son dead.

But oh no! Nikolai is a bad-ass deep-cover agent working with Scotland Yard. He survives a brutal attack in a bath house and tells his contact that he is going to replace Semyon.

I remember seeing this film opening night in a theater full of fancy folks, (older ladies really), who had heard about the nude Viggo Mortensen scene and come for that. What they got was a brainfull of subversive ideas about class and Eastern and Western culture. So different, yet so gangster.

The film is full of characters meeting an extreme to fulfill their convictions. Kirill killed a man for calling him queer because he was afraid that the idea, true or not, might diminish him in the eyes of his father. Anna enters a dangerous world in hopes to secure a future for child with no prospect. She may represent the naivety of western hope. Semyon is the Eastern Promise, a powerful king who will help you once you arrive in his kingdom. But his palace is built of lies. He is not only is guilty of proliferating prostitution, he’s a pederast and a rapist. But he would risk fraud in front of his gangster peers to keep his son out of harms way.  Finally, there is Nikolai, in deep-cover , building a lie he created so he could dismantle the evil from within.

Even though the baby is saved at the end of the film, and Semyon jailed, the film feels overtly movie like in these final moments, calling attention to itself with a visual cliché, such as Anna tending to the baby. You know this is a movie. You know this is a happy ending. But you know for the real Tatiana’s and Christine’s out there, there is no happy ending. “Slaves are born to slaves.”, Nikolai tells Anna. There’s the root of it. These people are slaves. Intimidation, money and power can enslave. But that’s not necessary. All you need is one good promise.



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