“It’s about slave labour in a modern Western city…” According to writer Steven Knight, Eastern Promises is a sociological thing. But this is David Cronenberg, and the underlay of political outrage is steeped in a rich sauce of claret and carnage.
The opening is practically self-parodic: a birth, a death, a death by birth... Cronenberg channels his love of worlds within worlds through Naomi Watts’ melancholy midwife, tracking the baby’s origin to the Russians-in-London underground: Armin Mueller-Stahl’s borscht-slurping, hooker-trading mob-boss; Vincent Cassel’s Pesci-lite wayward son. But, as you know, it’s Viggo Mortensen who steals the show; rightly Oscar-nommed for his shrugging, shark-eyed iceman Nikolai (“I am. Just. A driver…”) whose heart-rate barely seems to rise even as he clips the finger-ends off corpses. As with History Of Violence, he’s an apparently blameless foot-soldier struggling to keep his secrets suppressed. (The twist here is that they’re etched onto his skin rather than squirming in his soul.) He’s a calm, coiled cobra who stores up his strike for the already-legendary bath-house nude fight-scene; a grunting, steam-poached ballet of elbow and straining sinew.
While the moped-bound Watts’ outsider edge keeps the drama chugging along, her part is underwritten and doesn’t really seem to interest Cronenberg. So he wallows in the unknowable swirl of the subculture; camera hovering over the devilish details of Mortensen’s tattoos, before puncturing the symbolic surface tension to reveal a rarely illustrated underworld of shame.