Monday, January 21, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises (2007) 10/10
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife at a London hospital. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), is a driver working for the Russian mafia. When a Russian girl dies giving birth, and leaves a diary behind, their paths cross. Directed by David Cronenberg.

Late fall and early winter are when I catch up on the most acclaimed movies of the year. I still have to review Sweeney Todd (which I saw Christmas day) and I'm trying to get past the waiting list on Netflix for Zodiac and Ratatouille. Meanwhile, buzz is big for Viggo for Best Actor, so here we are.

I'm not an expert on Cronenberg. I know he's considered all auteur up the whazoo, but it seems this is only the third of his films I've seen. So I can't speak to any Cronenberg thematic elements in this review. Nonetheless, it's easy to see that Eastern Promises is exquisitely constructed; it works as a straight-ahead gangster thriller, while at the same time exploring interesting themes. The plot twists and turns intelligently; it's not a movie that's twisty for the sake of twists, but you can't easily predict what will happen next.

The acting is solid. Armin Mueller-Stahl as the gang boss, and Vincent Cassel as his spoiled and drunken son are chilling, while Viggo is just stunning. Really, it's an amazing performance, richly embodied. Every gesture, every facial expression, every nuance of posture, is part of a whole. Apparently, upon getting the role, he simply took off for the Urals on his own, meeting and befriending unsavory types and learning what the character was all about. Naomi Watts has comparatively less to do; the script contrasts her ordinary, above-ground life with the violence and mystery of the underworld, and so Watts is...ordinary. But for that, she is solid and believable, and never cliché.

The film's title speaks to its theme. Promises, obligations, oaths, and honor permeate Eastern Promises. The gangsters live by a code, vor v zakone (thieves in law), which cannot be broken. The moral obligations of family; father to son, brother to brother, and Anna's commitment to protect her patient, all come into play. Tension builds as honor and oath come into conflict, as the diary reveals secrets dishonorable to keep.

Viggo's Nikolai is so interesting in this respect. He is quietly terrifying, and yet in a dozen small ways, reveals himself to be an honorable man. Living by the thieve's code, violent, cold as ice, he has molded himself into a man of principle, and his principles are being tested by Anna's interference. What will happen remains, moment-by-moment, a mystery, there is little obvious here, but it all works.

I saw Eastern Promises last night, and woke up thinking about it. I am haunted by these characters and this script and am ready to see the film again.

(Cross-post v zakone)