Following the 2005 critical success of A History of Violence, there's a natural impulse to view David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises as a formerly maverick director's continuing foray into accessible, even mainstream, filmmaking.
This is ill-founded on two principal fronts. For Cronenberg, an early purveyor of the body/ venereal horror genre, this is his most characteristic work since 1996's Crash. There are the expected flashes of gory ultra-violence in this London-set crime drama, beginning with the opening scene inside a barber shop and continuing through a brutal, already iconic knife fight inside a Turkish bathhouse, featuring a bloody and totally nude Viggo Mortensen. More to the point of Cronenberg's preoccupation with radical physical transformation, however, are the copious, elucidatory tattoos etched into the skin of the Russian mobsters central to the film's storyline, stigmata that not only tell their life stories but become their permanent identity and being.
Moreover, this taut film has artistic and symbolic aspirations beyond the confines of the murder mystery or suspense thriller. The yuletide setting is no coincidence, for this is Cronenberg's Nativity story and as such is one of his most subversive works. A baby is born—to an unmarried teenage mother—whose very existence threatens the reign of a Russian mob boss named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), casually referred to several times as "King." Semyon summons wiseguys from the east, including Nikolai (Mortensen), his laconic driver and corpse disposer, to find and exterminate the child and anyone who knows her provenance.
When the baby's mother dies during childbirth, a hospital midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) takes charge of the newborn—to whom she aptly gives the deified name Christina—and attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the mother's life and death using the contents of her diary, shared with the audience via voiceover narration. They reveal a young immigrant who traversed west full of lofty dreams only to be forced into brutal prostitution for Semyon and his brash, sexually ambiguous son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). In the face of these developments, Nikolai, a ruthless mob enforcer, nonetheless finds his loyalties tested.
Cronenberg wallows in the immigrant divide running through London's underbelly as well as much of Stephen Frears' filmography, which is not happenstance since Eastern Promises was penned by Steve Knight, the scribe of Frears' similarly themed Dirty Pretty Things. Adding to the multicultural borscht is the casting of an American (Mortensen) and German (Mueller-Stahl)—each actor giving an award-worthy performance—together with an Anglo-Australian (Watts) and Frenchman (Cassel) as Russian immigrants living in England. And Cronenberg himself is Canadian.
Other proverbial Cronenberg themes are trotted out like old Christmas tree ornaments, notably the persistent sexual subtext. But, alongside the plotline's intricate patchwork of alliances and betrayals, it is the exploration of (mis)identity and self—central to so much of Cronenberg's work—that provides the film with its multilayered texture. Every central character carries deep secrets that mask their true selves, including Anna, whose Anglo visage and chosen moniker mask her Russian heritage and whose recent miscarriage serves as the unspoken impetus behind her dangerous endeavor.
A late plot twist adds yet another stratum to an already mysterious Nikolai, but here is where an excellent film loses its grasp on greatness. We are left with a better realization of Nikolai's altruism; however, by the end it is clear that Cronenberg believes that Nikolai harbors selfish ambitions, but the film declines to fully dramatize this point.
The two closing shots are their own denouement: The first shows Anna and Christina—Madonna and Child, perhaps—haloed in radiant sunlight and a bright future; the second leaves us with Nikolai shrouded in the murkiness of whether he is an avenging archangel or a fallen one.
Eastern Promises opens Friday in select theaters.