Friedrich Nietzsche once asked ‘if evil men have no songs, how is it that the Russians have songs?’ A similar tone of revulsion and envy runs through Steven Dirty Pretty Things Knight’s script for David Cronenberg’s new film, a perversely entertaining gangland thriller set among the Russian immigrant population of North London.
It’s Christmas time and half Russian nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) is working the night shift when a young, heavily pregnant and bleeding Russian woman is admitted to her hospital. It is an event that will lead her to the Russian restaurant of seemingly benign old man Semyon (Armin Müeller-Stahl), his deranged son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, overacting horribly) and their laconic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Unbeknown to the middle class Naomi, her search for the father of the girl’s baby opens a deep and very dark hole of turpitude, profligacy and murderous intent.
Returning to work in London for the first time since 2002’s Spider, Cronenberg proves yet again that he is one of the most proficient, seamless and intelligent big name English language filmmakers still at work today. If Eastern Promises lacks the queasy balance of nuance that informed his 2005 masterwork A History of Violence (also starring the talented Mortensen), it has more to do with the over stretched ambitions of Knight’s sometimes embarrassingly earnest screenplay and its attempts to answer some big questions about criminal brotherhoods and the Russian self than the failings of this director. That aside, everything else here is in order – once again Cronenberg scratches the beast inside with a surety that leaves his contemporaries behind. No one does this kind of thing better than the mysterious Canadian, and the fact that he has the great Polish writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski (Knife in Water, Deep End) in the relatively minor role of Uncle Stephan is an inspired nod to Skolimowski’s curious and brilliant UK-set films The Shout and (most presciently) Moonlighting and Success is the Best Revenge. Lessons in the East/West urban clash do not come more neglected or fascinating than these two films.
General release from Fri 26 Oct.