“London...” sighs ageing Russian mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). “City of whores and queers!” No wonder director David Cronenberg feels so much at home, having opted to follow his East End psychodrama Spider, by way of A History Of Violence, with this chilly peer into the secret gangster underworld lying just beneath the city’s surface. For his part, writer Steven Knight previously explored the capital’s immigrant subculture in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. Yet where the British director handled Knight’s material with a gritty, forensic naturalism, his Canadian counterpart opts for the gothic, bringing a cool, studied menace to this twisting tale of grime and punishment.
Two short scenes set the darkly mordant tone. In one, a Russian goon has his throat slit at a Turkish barber’s. In the other, a dying prostitute walks into a chemist’s and promptly goes into labour. The baby survives – it is Christmas, after all – thanks to kindly, plucky midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) who, armed with the hooker’s diary, sets out to find the poor little blighter’s family. Her altruistic quest brings her to Semyon, who orders his driver-cum-fixer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to retrieve the incriminating journal. The taciturn Nikolai, whose own history of violence is outlined by the 43 tattoos he has etched about his person, is Cronenberg’s true protagonist here: a good man in a bad job whose ruthless efficiency (revealed when he clinically removes the fingers of that murdered hood with a pair of secateurs) makes him a far more fitting Godfather-in-waiting than Semyon’s hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Such familial intrigue, however, feels like an afterthought as events unfold, as does Naomi and Viggo’s unlikely romance. The director’s real interest is in the ‘Vory V Zakone’, the shadowy brotherhood to whom Mortensen has sworn his allegiance, and whose complex traditions fascinate the helmer as much as the gynaecological pathologies of Dead Ringers and the autoerotic compulsions of Crash. For a filmmaker best known for body horror, the scene where a disrobed Viggo displays his tats to a criminal council appears to suggest a new delight in the body beautiful. The David of old, though, is never far away, Nikolai’s bare-arsed battle with two Turks in a sauna immediately entering the pantheon of classic Cronenberg moments.
Why, then, does some of Eastern’s promise go unfulfilled? Perhaps it’s down to that sombre ending, or a bizarrely cosmopolitan cast (Irish, French, German, Polish) that leaves us with the sneaking suspicion we’re watching the ultimate Europudding. Those naked fisticuffs apart, everything is kept on a muted key. Still, there’s no doubting Cronenberg’s success at offering a distinctive new spin on the London crime yarn: a bleak, unsettling thriller that’s nightmare made flesh.
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Like the Borscht served on Semyon's Trans-Siberian menu, Promises is filling, flavoursome and full of dead meat. Thanks to its compelling story and a powerful performance by Mortensen, it's also as hard to shake off as one of Nikolai's tattoos.