Eastern Promises (2007)

What a quaint little film. A little under-aged prostitution, a small dose graphic violence and a dark, understated story sound like the gritty foundation of a good mobster flick, but somehow David Croneneberg’s adaptation of the screenplay by Steven Knight ends up far too safe and easy for its own good.

Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who works at the local hospital, obtains a journal from a teenaged girl who dies in childbirth, a journal that gives her a glimpse of the seedy world of Russian mob life in London. When small time mob drive Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) takes an interest in her, she think she might have an in to sorting out this whole mess and finding a home for the motherless infant.

The domestic life of Anna is at odds with the revolting details of mob killings and petty interpersonal squabbles.  Anna does give the film something most mod films lack: human hope. However, this hope means little without the true grip of despair, something the audience is never fully immersed in because of Anna’s distance from the mob world.

This does allow Eastern Promises to be a film that isn’t as problematic as most mobster flicks. At no point does the criminal life seem to be glorified and the film does a good job of making the actual seedy proceedings run as more of an undercurrent in the film instead of the main focus. It’s a film built more around the characters and their relationships.

A lot of the mobster section has to do with the play between Nikolai and Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the young mob captain with an aloof attitude but a vicious temper. Kirill’s father, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) exudes warmth those around him, but refuses to give them to his son. Nikolai is caught up as the surrogate son, creating this unspoken conflict of approval and jealousy.

And while the dynamic between these three is compelling, Anna’s life is of little interest. To the film’s credit, it does try to insert some domestic tensions as well as tease to some of the past circumstances of Anna’s life which could set up a compelling drama, but they never manifest themselves to make this section as compelling as the mob scenes.

In many ways, Steven Knight’s script is fantastic. It leaves a lot of associations and ideas unspoken, but always finds a way to express them. But picking Cronenberg to direct the film is strange. It’s a film that plays to none of Cronenebeg’s strengths and while he doesn’t make a bad film, it’s a film where none of the style or direction is noteworthy.

Capped off with an ending that feels too easy, it’s a film that concerns a lot of despicable things but it feels like it never wants to get its hands dirty. Considering Cronenberg has written some challenging and provoking films, it’s strange that he directed a film that consistently refuses to challenge the audience. There’s nothing wrong with making a film that isn’t challenging, or even making a film that finds a way to keep the audience in a safe place. For Eastern Promises it does make the film feel disingenuous about its subject matter.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing