This week I’ll be taking at the 2007 neo-noir set in a seedy and dark London, Eastern Promises. It was a couple of years ago that I first watched this crime drama and it really stuck with me, having recently rewatched it I can confirm that it was even better than I remembered, and I recommend it to anyone willing to put up with some grizzly subject matter. The film was adapted from a screenplay by Steven Knight, who has written for some of the most iconic British film and television in recent years and was directed by David Cronenberg. This was evidently a fantastic choice, as Cronenberg has been behind some major cult classics over the years including Scanners, Videodrome, Crash and The Fly.
Eastern Promises is essentially centred around a branch of the Russian Mafia that are based in London. In typical film noir style, the seedy underworld of crime is viewed through the lens of hardened criminals and a helpless outsider that is dragged into the madness. The sort of ‘damsel in distress’ archetype, played brilliantly by Naomi Watts, is a midwife who is dealing with the aftermath of a newborn baby whose underage mother did not survive giving birth. In the search for any family that are able to look after the baby, Anna (Naomi Watts) becomes what would traditionally be the detective of a film noir.
The criminal underworld of Easter Promises features as many ridiculous characters as there are terrifying ones. Perhaps the most ridiculous is the incompetent son of one of the head honchos, played by Vincent Cassel. The whiny entitlement of the heir to a large portion of business within the Russian Mafia sticks out from the steely faces and coldness of the higher up members. This is one of the things that brings the movie to life; the portrayal of Mafia members as real people is a more modern touch on the classic film noir setup. The contrast between the spoiled heir Kirill and the highly professional Semyon who we find making his way up the ranks can be seen as a conflict between the old-school and new-school. Semyon, played masterfully by Viggo Mortensen, is the other main character of the film, alongside Anna.
To say much more of the plot and story arcs of the movie would risk spoiling the expertly managed twists that really make this movie so great. Cronenberg and Knight have managed to fit all of the intricacies of the best crime series into 100 minutes. This alone is an achievement worthy of commendation, not to mention that the film quickly transforms from unassuming mafia flick to one of the best crime mysteries of the 2000s. I can’t say enough that certain scenes and storylines in Eastern Promises are not for the faint of hearted, as is probably expected of an 18-rated movie centred around the Russian Mafia. You can tell, as I found when researching the movie, that immense research has gone into from everything from Russian traditions to the intricacies of Vory V Zakone prison tattoos, not to mention the gut-wrenching realism of the violence in fight scenes.
The result of meticulous research, great scriptwriting and amazing casting in Mortensen, Watts and Cassel is a breathtakingly tense movie that forces you feel every moment of suspense. United through dark humour and quick one-liners that are a throwback to the classic film noirs of the 50s, Eastern Promises gives the feeling of a modern classic even after the first watch. It may not feature any arthouse staples or blockbuster effects, but the movie has such a strong story that everything else seemingly falls into place in front of your eyes.
Words by Ewan Blacklaw