Eastern Promises - reconsidered

WARNING: spoilers for Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and Dirty Pretty Things.

I just wrote my review for this film, and it's amazing how much my opinion has shifted since I first saw it. Oddly enough, I see many more flaws now, many more opportunities for improvement even, yet at the same time I like it a lot more than I did then.

Let's start with the flaws. I've come to the conclusion that the narrative wouldn't be hurt much if Naomi Watts' Anna was removed from it altogether. Don't get me wrong. Girl can act - and nobody who's seen Mulholland Drive will argue otherwise. But her character, despite some desperate touches to make her edgy - black ex-boyfriend, motorcycle - is dreadfully bland, and she isn't served well by the script, which gives her groan-inducing lines like "sometimes life and death go together". She's too obviously there just to be a) an audience stand-in, and outsider discovering the world of the Vory V Zakone as we do and b) a catalyst for the action. I'd say the dead girl would have been enough for b) with anonymous cops on the hunt, and preferably without the voice-over.

It's strange how Steven Knight's script for Eastern Promises has made me like his earlier Dirty Pretty Things LESS, because it's exposed some of the tricks and manipulation as, well, tricks and manipulation. Most irritatingly, Knight uses women being sexually assaulted as an overly obvious signaler for EVIL. Of course sexually assaulting women IS evil, but wouldn't it be nicer to, you know, make the good/bad division a bit more ambiguous? In Dirty Pretty Things, it's apparently not enough that Audrey Tautou's character is so desperate to go the the US she'd give up a kidney or work in a sweat shop, and that Sergi Lopez and the sweatshop owner take advantage of her desperation. Both have to sexually violate her, degrade her. The same in Eastern Promises: Semyon and Kirill are members of a criminal organization that KILLS PEOPLE, you know, but their evilness needs to be reinforced by having Semyon be a real and Kirill a wannabe rapist. Knight probably feels all good about acting righteous, but it speaks of a profound objectification of women, seeing them merely as beings to be protected - by men.

Why, then, has Eastern Promises grown in my estimation nonetheless? Because both Cronenberg and his actors - Mortensen in particular - take this extremely flawed script and put their own idiosyncrasies and ideas into it, leaving the surface intact but inserting layers upon layers below.

Cronenberg, first. In a recent interview with Poland, he explained that especially because he is an atheist, murder is, to him, the ultimate destructive act, and that he wants to show it as such. That's why he lingers longer than most would on blood spilling out of a slit throat, that's why he doesn't offer us the luxury of looking away. In most action movies the body count is much higher than in his, but he makes every body count. It shows, for instance, in how messy it is to dispose of the first corpse: death may be swift, but it's not easy to forget. The scene in which Nicolai methodically clips off the dead man's fingers is partly played for laughs, but it's also there to remind us of how messy death is.

Then there is, of course, Cronenberg's obsession with the combined strength, malleability, and vulnerability of the human body. Nicolai is a killing machine: effective and smooth. At the same time, his body shows the signs of his life: not just scars, but tattoos. In the scene where he gets some new ones, we see it happen: a needle is inserted and his body changes. Finally, the vulnerability: despite the eventual outcome, seeing a naked man fight two clothed ones with nasty, curved knives makes you very, very aware of how easy to pierce human skin is, how easy to damage a man.

Finally, Mortensen's performance is amazing. He is, here, the polar opposite of Tom/Joey from A History of Violence: where that character was an evil man acting at being good, Nicolai is, or at least seams to be, an evil man, but he might be good inside. In History, the evil character comes back out, but the conclusion can be seen as optimistic, as Mortensen's character wants to be Tom again at the end. In parallel, Nicolai (in a 'twist' that didn't need to be so spelled out) is undercover as a Vory. His cop persona comes out: he frees the prostitute, doesn't kill Anna's uncle. But in the end, it seems that he wants to be the 'fake' persona too: he's sitting in Semyon's restaurant, staring ahead of him, and it's possible to read half a dozen conflicting feelings on his face.

Mortensen really builds this character from the inside out. Oh, the accent is good, but it's not just that. It's in the way he talks, too, in the way he stands with his hands over one another, in how he moves. In the bad-boy moves - fingers to his throat, cigarette out on his tongue - that keep you wondering about how much of it is an act, and how much is real. I can't really articulate it better than the Shamus did (in an entry he unfortunately seems to have deleted, but google "shamus mortensen"and you'll find it cached), so I won't try, but it's his performance that keeps the film together, and that makes it infinitely more interesting than in would otherwise have been.

I didn't mean this post to be so long, but I suppose that shows more clearly than any words could how much this movie has stayed in my mind. I didn't expect it to. I'm seeing it again this Sunday, and I'm curious if I'll see even more.

UPDATE: Still thinking about this movie, and discovered two very insightful posts, one looking at the movie from a very gender-oriented perspective, the other amongst other things about the strange lack of technology.


Anonymous said...

I think the biggest flaw of your article is not that it's too long but with 4x photos of ga-ga mortensen, it's not only boring but very boring indeed.

Hedwig said...

Yay! I got me a troll :-) I don't think there's a clearer sign of blog success that that.

And well, the pictures are not because I go so gaga over Mortensen's looks (ok, I swoon over him in Aragorn gear, but without? meh), but because I thought it would make this long slab of text less intimidating. Guess I was wrong.

Kaj said...

About this twist: A lot of people talk about him being a cop makes the movie less ambiguous, but as I remember it, he was a FSB agent working with Scotland Yard, not for SY. I don't consider it to be quite so clear what business an FSB agent has in the London Vory, or why the police think that's a good thing.

cjKennedy said...

Oh come on Hedwig, your heart paused a little bit during that bathhouse scene. Admit it! :)

I have to say this is one of the better things you've blogged in a while (and no that's not a backhanded remark about all your other posts, this one is just special!).

I still haven't seen it for a 2nd time, but you've reminded me that I need to. I agree that Naomi's character is the weak link in the chain, but I still think she's necessary as both a parallel and a counterpoint to Nikolai. Could Cronenberg have made her a stronger force? I don't know. I really feel his interest and sympathies were all with Nikolai. Is that a flaw? Maybe, but not necessarily.

It's interesting your opinion of DPT is dimming. I remember liking it a lot but others have also expressed reservations about it (was it at House Next Door?) and I'm beginning to think I need to see it again also. Perhaps I was overly charmed by Audrey and Chiwetel. It could be one of those movies that doesn't hold up on additional viewings (one reason I don't care for the oxymoron "Instant Classic").

Hedwig said...

@Kaj: you have a point there, but despite murky allegiances, his "hidden" persona is clearly meant to be a good one, as evidenced - according to Knight's big book of signifyers- by the rescue of the hooker he has sex with in the beginning. I liked your comment on FT: Knight wrote a script that went for the heartstrings (the voice-over and all) but Cronenberg took that script and turned it into something that went right for the underbelly.

@ CJ: Thanks :-) I know, this blog has been in a slum due to nanowrimo. The end of that is onlt 2000 words away though, and I'm planning on writing a lot more often in December, on watching a lot more movies, too. Seeing Anna as a counterpoint to Nicolai is interesting, especially the bringer of life/bringer of death contrast, but the idea is barely worked out, and I think it's also Cronenberg who sees Nicolai as the more interesting character, not just the audience. As for Dirty Pretty Things, I still like it, especially the two (well, three) central performances, but it feels cheaper now, more manipulative. It's too bad, really.

cjKennedy said...

See, I knew you'd take that as a backhanded slam! I totally didn't mean it that way.

Anyway, I definitely agree Cronenberg has much more interest in Nikolai.

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