As someone who could in the past take or leave David Cronenberg movies, off the back of the tremendous A History Of Violence and now Eastern Promises, he’s slap-bang in the top echelons of my directors-to-follow list. Sure, in the past I’ve watched and respected films such as Naked Lunch and Scanners (although Crash I could more easily leave), but – while I accepted that others loved them – they just didn’t push my buttons.
Eastern Promises isn’t quite the equal of A History Of Violence, but it’s easily as strong as 90% of the movies that came out in 2007. Set among the Russian mafia in London, the catalyst for the story is a young woman dying at the start of the film, with her baby being delivered just in time. Naomi Watts’ Anna is drawn to the child, and the story of her mother, which comes to light when the deceased’s diary is translated into English.
That translation doesn’t just raise Anna’s heckles, it also draws the attention of mob boss Semyon. In the mix too is his son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai, Kirill’s driver. And it’s the mixing in of these worlds, and the politics within the Russian mafia, that then form the cornerstone of a fascinating, occasionally brutally violent movie. One washroom scene in particular pulls no punches – pretty much literally – and isn’t for the faint of heart.
Still, there’s a story to tell, and Cronenberg tells it expertly. His cast serve him well, especially Mortensen, whose Nikolai has shades of his History Of Violence character, but nonetheless offers real distinction and range (he was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Daniel Day-Lewis). He infuses Nikolai with menace and gravitas, often by being completely still, and dominates – often quietly – every scene he walks into. Also, Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon puts in quality work, and deserves plaudits.
On the lesser side, Naomi Watts gets by far the least interesting role in the film and doesn’t do a fat lot with it, and the bits where Eastern Promises loses some of its intrigue are when it moves into her world, rather than the far more interesting lives of the Russian mafia.
Yet the film is very good, and leaves you practically salivating for whatever Cronenberg will come up with next. Hopefully, there’s a good role in there for Viggo again, too.
The Blu-ray release is less compelling, although the picture quality is very, very sharp and delivers in spades. From the creases on Mueller-Stahl’s head to the dark and dingy brickwork, the picture drips detail, and is matched by good audio, too. TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus options are provided, and while it’s hardly a showcase audio workout, the breadth of the soundstage is well replicated, and the subtleties come over a treat.
The extras are lacking, though, with just two short featurettes to dig into. Marked For Life is just over six minutes talking about tattoos, while Secrets and Stories is talking heads about how the film came to be. Both could have dropped happily out of the press kit. There’s no commentary, which is a real pity, and no meat at all to a film that surely warrants some good discussion.
If you’re of the ilk that you simply must have every new release in high definition, then fair enough, because the picture and sound aren’t going to disappoint you. But if you’re after a bit more for the premium price a Blu-ray disc commands, then you will be disappointed. The definitive Eastern Promises release, you can’t help but fear, is still some way away…